How this ‘sensationalist’ headline has driven a disinformation campaign against World Cup host Qatar

Most of the attacks targeting the Gulf state addresses its treatment of migrant workers, though officials say critics often overlook its efforts to improve laws in the country.

A misreported headline published by The Guardian last year has been exploited as part of the ongoing campaign against Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, a top disinformation expert found.

The finding was revealed on Saturday by Dr. Marc Owen Jones, an assistant professor in Middle East Studies and Digital Humanities at the Doha-based Hamad bin Khalifa University (HBKU).

Jones looked back on an article published by The Guardian in February last year headlined, “Revealed: 6,500 migrant workers have died in Qatar as it gears up for World Cup”.

The article had linked the “shocking” death rate to the start of Qatar’s World Cup 2022 journey back in 2010 when the Gulf state won the bid to host the major event. 

“The Guardian later amended the headline to make  it clear the figure of deaths was over a ten-year period. Nonetheless, the original allusion still stood – with the headline still heavily implying the deaths were anomalous and connected to the World Cup,” noted Dr. Jones in a Twitter thread.

Despite the article being slammed as “deceptive” and “sensationalised” by social media users as well as the Qatari government, it has continued to spread in the ongoing campaign against Qatar.

“Like everything on Twitter, most content is retweets, and re-contextualised information. The predictable thing about misleading statistics is misinterpretation,” said Dr. Jones in a Twitter thread.

The reported figure had referred to deaths of workers from Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, India, and Bangladesh without providing a thorough investigation into their cause of death as well as the alleged association with the World Cup.

“I won’t get started on why also reducing 6,500 South Asian workers to construction workers is also racist,” said Dr. Jones.

Dr. Jones said such headlines “are prone to misuse” and found the figure was tweeted more than 400,000 times since the article was first published.

Apart from English, the original language the article was published in, the story was also shared in French, Dutch, and Spanish.

“The Guardian headline has become the centre of a multilingual evidentiary claim about deaths in Qatar. I emphasise ‘headline’ because for many that’s all they read,” he said.

The HBKU professor explained that such headlines are sensationalist given that they “wish to invoke such misinterpretations”, with it being shared by influencers, politicians and journalists.

“Although we can lambast people for not being critical, newspapers are abusing the trust of their readers by engaging in such sensationalism and disinformation (and it is disinformation),” he said.

However, the HBKU professor stressed that the misinformation he exposed “does not negate very real human rights issues”, urging accurate reporting on the matter.

World Cup scrutiny

The latest findings come amid an ongoing criticism of Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers ahead of the World Cup in November, in what officials have described as a targeted campaign rooted in racism against the first World Cup in the Arab world.

“One of the reasons that coverage of the World Cup has been as it has is partly because there is less nuanced coverage about the Middle East and/or the Global South. This is a long-standing issue of Orientalism,” noted Dr. Jones.

Qatar itself has not shied away from the criticism and has collaborated with international entities, such as the United Nations International Labour Organization (ILO), in an attempt to resolve the issues.

Authorities also say widespread labour reforms have been unveiled to tackle the concerns, noting such efforts have been widely overlooked by critics. 

Mahmoud Qutub, the Supreme Committee’s executive director of workers’ welfare and labour rights, said on Thursday that even though there are still weaknesses in the country’s labour system, hosting the World Cup has given Qatar an opportunity to advance issues related to workers’ rights.

“We embarked on this journey after we won the World Cup bid. There was an acknowledgment at the time that gaps existed. We have demonstrated through our various ecosystems that meaningful steps can be taken to fill those gaps,” Qutub said during a public parliamentary hearing on the protection of workers’ rights in Qatar. 

Last year, Qatar’s Government Communications Office (GCO) said the report was “a far cry from reality” that failed to clarify the reasons behind the deaths.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum in May this year, Qatar’s Amir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani said discrimination targeting his country is due to people outside of the region refusing to learn about the Middle East.

“Even today, there are still people who cannot accept the idea that an Arab Muslim country would host a tournament, like the World Cup,” he said.

Sheikh Tamim stressed that Qatar is constantly working on improving and developing, noting a wave of progress, including major labour reforms, made in the Gulf state over the years.

“We are so proud of the development, reform, and progress we have made, and we are grateful for the spotlight that the World Cup provided, which inspired us to make these changes at lightning-speed,” said Sheikh Tamim.

Addressing the perceived racism, Dr Jones said: “Countries outside zones of privilege become caricatures, often of their most negative traits, and people are primed to believe figures like 6,500 deaths because many are also primed to believe that the Global South is a barbaric and less civilised place”.

Major reforms

In 2021, the country introduced the region’s first ever non-discriminatory minimum wage law, triggering praise worldwide.

Doha also launched a new platform for workers’ complaints in May 2021 to enable employees to submit public violations of the labour law.

Qatar’s Wage Protection System, which requires companies to transmit all payments through Qatari banks within seven days of their due date, is now said to cover over 96% of eligible workers in Qatar.

Additional reform includes two key laws to eliminate barriers on migrant workers leaving the country and changing jobs without permission from their employers.

The new laws have the potential to strike at the core of the Kafala system, which links migrant workers to their employers, if effectively implemented. However, there are numerous cases of employers not abiding by the reforms.

Employees told Amnesty International that changing employment still comes with major obstacles and opposition from dissatisfied bosses.

Qatar’s Minister of Labour Ali Al Marri recently stated that the legislative updates and improvements in the labour sector in recent years have been “continuous and sustainable” and will continue after the World Cup.

Speaking in Strasbourg this week, the Head of Norway Football Federation Lise Klaveness admitted “these are steps in the right direction and it is my experience that the Supreme Committee really tries to meet critics and really work to make lasting changes”.

“It is important to recognise these sincere efforts by Hassan Al Thawadi and his colleagues in Supreme Committee,” she said, referencing the secretary-general of the World Cup organising body.

However, she said “the positive changes need to reach more than the 2% of workers the Supreme Committee covers. And the changes need to be lasting before we can talk about any legacy.”

Earlier this week, the CEO of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Nasser Al Khater also addressed a range of issues in an interview with Sky News, expressing multiple times that he believes Qatar is being unfairly targeted.

“We’ve taken the challenge upon ourselves and we’ve risen to that challenge,” he said.

When asked by Sky News if he felt the criticism facing the country was racist, he responded saying “I’m not going to get into what the intentions of other people are, I’m not going to get into the minds and souls of other people.”

“But you know, who knows, possibly.”

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