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How a false press release on girls’ schools made international headlines

Afghan Witness analyses the fake press release that was picked up by several reputable news outlets and multiple journalists.


25 Jul 2022

In mid-July, several reputable international news outlets, including Sky News, reported that the Taliban were due to reopen girls’ schools imminently. This led several Taliban-linked Twitter accounts to deny the claims and denounce the story as false.

The initial claim was spread by an account [@MoEducationIEA] on July 12 using a [now deleted] statement claiming: “On Thursday, 23 Saratan Solar Year, 14th of Zul Hijjah lunar calendar (14th of July 2022), the officials of the ministry of Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue and the Ministry of Education are going to have a joint press conference at the information and media centre of the IEA on the opening of girls’ schools across Afghanistan. The representatives of the media outlets are invited to be present there in order to cover the press conference. Topic: Opening of girls’ schools across the country based on the order of the supreme leader. Date and time: Thursday, 23rd Saratan 1401 solar year (14 July 2022) at 10:00am Venue: Marmarin Palace, information and media centre of the IEA”

Figure: Press release announcing the Ministry of Education would hold a press conference confirming the reopening of girls’ schools.

The initial Twitter users who caused a surge in engagement by sharing the false statement were Tajuden Soroush, a correspondent for Afghanistan International, and Bilal Sarwary, a well-known journalist. Both shared the tweet in close proximity. Sky News then announced that the Taliban would be opening girls' schools the following Thursday [July 14], having allegedly confirmed this with the Ministry of Education itself. On July 13, once the false press release started to gain international traction, the Taliban, through the official Ministry of Education account [@MoEAfghanistan], denied any such announcement, stating: “On social media, any announcement about the start of girls' schools from the seventh to the twelfth grade is not true, it is fake.”

Figure: Tweet from the official Ministry of Education account stating that the mocked-up press release was untrue. The words in red read “Fake News”.

Afghan Witness (AW) investigators analysed the statement made by the account [@MoEducationIEA], comparing it to the original press releases and verifying the authenticity of the statement. The Twitter account [@MoEducationIEA] was formerly named @AbdulBaqiHaqani, a misspelt name of the Taliban’s acting Minister of Higher Education, Abdul Baqi Haqqani. The account changed its name between the end of March 2022 and July 11, 2022. All prior tweets were deleted [excluding one tweet from March].

After July 11, the account began to repost individual tweets made by the original Ministry of Education account [@MoEducationIEA]. This included tweets such as sharing a form to lodge complaints about an examination process, which increased the legitimacy of the account. The account then published the mock-up of a press release, claiming there would be a conference announcing the reopening of girls' schools.

After analysis, there are several indicators that suggest the account released a doctored statement:

  1. Mismatched fonts at the bottom of the document.

  2. The bottom of the press release had a very small amount of black under the ‘o’ and ‘e’ of the social media name. This led investigators to believe the logo and name had been copy and pasted over the original text to make it appear as though the fake user handle was the official one.

Figure: Enlargement of the mismatched fonts underneath the Twitter name.

Figure: The bottom of the press release with a very small amount of black under the ‘o’ and ‘e’ of the social media name

The incident demonstrates a relatively advanced disinformation effort to embarrass the Taliban by setting up a clone account, running it for a period to establish legitimacy and then using it to release a false statement. It also highlights the downside to Twitter’s policy of not verifying Taliban accounts. While the decision is designed to not give legitimacy to the Taliban, it also makes it easier for fake accounts to be set up and used in disinformation efforts.

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