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Shocking 6,500 deaths ahead of World Cup was anti-Qatar ‘disinformation’, expert says

October 18, 2022 at 1:50 pm

Construction workers in Doha, Qatar [Richard Messenger/Flickr]

A report in the Guardian which claimed that 6,500 migrant workers had died in connection with the World Cup in Qatar has been slammed as “the most pervasive and re-occurring pieces of disinformation.” A report in the UK newspaper in February 2021 had implied that the shocking number of deaths was connected to the World Cup. Though the actual number of deaths among workers directly linked to construction of World Cup venues is 37, the 6,500-figure splashed across the papers headline became a major source of disinformation on social media, according to Assistant Professor, Marc Owen Jones.

Jones is an expert on social media and the author of ‘Digital Authoritarianism in the Middle East’. Debunking the 6,500 figure in a series of tweets, Jones revealed how the shocking rate of death became the most pervasive source of disinformation about the Gulf State. According to Jones, the Guardian article has been the most retweeted article in English about the Qatar World Cup.

The Guardian itself amended the headline to make it clear the figure of deaths was over a ten-year period. Nonetheless, the original allusion that 6,500 people had died in relation to the World Cup remained. The headline heavily implied that the deaths were anomalous and connected to the World Cup.

“The 6,500 figure actually refers to all deaths of migrant workers from Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, India and Bangladesh, regardless of cause,” said Jones. “It’s not an ‘excess’ death figure. An equivalent ‘spin would be “100,000 dead as COVID rampages through UK” to be clarified that only say, 0.1 per cent of those deaths were actually from Covid.”

Jones went on to explain that “in disinformation terms, this falls under either ‘misleading content’, ‘false connection’ or ‘false context’.” The 6,500 is said to have resurfaced “constantly” and has been tweeted about over 400 thousand times. He revealed details of how, within 24 hours, the original Guardian headline was interpreted to mean 6,500 died on construction sites.

“This is a great lesson on how ‘misleading information’ becomes ‘false information’ very quickly,” said Jones. “In fact, in this case, the original headline was sensationalist precisely because it wished to invoke such misinterpretations. Otherwise, why publish the figure?”

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So-called influencers, politicians and journalists have shared the 6,500 figure over the past three months to imply that the number is related to deaths on construction sites. “So much of the outrage around Qatar is held together by a single thin thread that goes back to a sensationalist newspaper headline using misleading statistics,” Jones argued.  “Although we can lambast people for not being critical, newspapers are abusing the trust of their readers.”

Doha has come under sharp criticism over its alleged human rights abuse and its poor treatment of migrant workers. Protests are expected, and several European football federations announced recently that they will campaign against human rights abuse during the games.