False claim about executions of protesters in Iran goes viral with the help of celebrities and politicians

A false claim that Iran plans to execute thousands of people has gone viral in the wake of the first death sentence for a protester linked to ongoing demonstrations against the country’s clerical rulers for women’s rights.

An image that has circulated widely on social media falsely claims that 15,000 protesters have been sentenced to death. That claim is not true, but it has been amplified by leading public figures, including actresses Viola Davis and Sophie Turner and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Representatives for Davis did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Turner’s representatives declined to comment.

The claim garnered the most attention on Instagram, where a viral infographic claiming that “Iran sentences 15,000 protesters to death, as a ‘hard lesson’ for all rebels” was viewed more than a million times after celebrities like Davis and Turner shared it on their social networks. accounts verified on monday. The post no longer appears on Davis’s account, but it was still on Turner’s as of Tuesday afternoon.

There has been no evidence that 15,000 protesters have been sentenced to death. Two protesters had been sentenced to death as of Tuesday, although they can appeal, according to state news agencies.

Instagram has now applied a “False Information” warning on Turner’s post, noting: “Independent fact-checkers reviewed the same information in another post.”

On Twitter, however, the false claim continued to spread on Tuesday without any warning about its factual inaccuracy.

On Monday night, Trudeau shared a post that read: “Canada denounces the Iranian regime’s barbaric decision to impose the death penalty on nearly 15,000 protesters. These brave Iranians were fighting for their human rights, and we remain united in support of them and united against the regime’s heinous actions.” The post stayed up for more than 11 hours and was shared thousands of times before it was removed.

In a statement provided to NBC News, Trudeau’s office said: “The publication was informed by initial reports that were incomplete and lacked necessary context. Because of that, it has since been removed.”

Other users on Twitter also posted content that remains on the platform sharing false information without accompanying notes about its inaccuracy.

Like much of the viral misinformation online, the claim about the 15,000 death sentences appears to have started with a kernel of truth. After weeks of protests in Iran following the murder of a 22-year-old mahsa aminiwho died three days after she was detained by police, the treatment of detained protesters has gained much attention.

The US-based Human Rights Activists News Agency. said that 15,800 protesters they have been detained and 344 killed since the protests began. Independent reports are suppressed in Iran and NBC News cannot confirm these numbers.

CNN reported Wednesday that Iran’s special rapporteur on human rights to the United Nations, Javaid Rehman, told the UN Security Council that some estimates of detained protesters were as high as 14,000 people. NBC News has not verified that number.

Two weeks ago, IRNA, Iran’s state news agency, reported that 227 members of Iran’s 290-seat parliament had signed an open letter to the country’s judiciary seeking swift and severe punishment for the detained protesters. NBC News has not seen that letter.

The state news agency said the letter did not suggest a method of punishment, but said: “We, the representatives of this nation, call on all state officials, including the judiciary, to treat those who waged war (against the Islamic establishment). ) and attacked the life and property of people like Daesh (terrorists), in a way that would serve as a good lesson in the shortest possible time.”

IRNA also reported that some members of Iran’s parliament chanted “Death to America”, “Death to the hypocrite” and “Death to the seditious” after the statement was read aloud.

In a Nov. 8 Newsweek report, citing CNN’s reporting on the open letter, Newsweek erroneously wrote that “Iran votes to execute protesters,” citing no additional reporting to back up the claim.

On Tuesday, Newsweek issued a correction, writing: “This article and headline have been updated to remove reference to the Iranian parliament voting in favor of death sentences. The majority of parliament supported a letter to the judiciary calling for severe punishments for the protesters, which could include the death penalty.”

Iran’s judiciary issued its first known death sentence related to the recent protests on Sunday, according to the judiciary’s Mizan news agency, adding that the ruling is preliminary and can be appealed. Iran’s Tasnim News reported another death sentence on Tuesday.

Afshin Marashi, a professor of modern Iranian history at the University of Oklahoma, told NBC News via email that he had not seen any information to support the claim that 15,000 protesters had been sentenced to death, but explained why such a rumor might spread. .

“In a situation where information is difficult to confirm, rumors can spread quickly,” Marashi wrote, adding that “the rumor appears to be based on a public discussion that took place in the Iranian Majles (parliament) about a year ago. week. There was a call from a large number of IRI parliamentarians to impose severe punishment on the protesters.”

Marashi noted that there is a precedent for mass executions in Iran, which he said could help fuel calls for widespread death sentences for protesters.

“In 1988, thousands of political prisoners were executed on the orders of Ayatollah Khomeini within a few months,” he said. “Rumors of a new round of mass executions are probably fueled by memories of what happened in 1988.”

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