A person looks on October 20 at a tweet about the reported death of 15-year-old Iranian girl Asra Panahi.

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Abu Dhabi CNN  — 

On Monday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau posted a tweet saying “Canada denounces the Iranian regime’s barbaric decision to impose the death penalty on nearly 15,000 protestors.” Twelve hours later, it was deleted.

The tweet appeared to allude to a false narrative on Iran that had been circulating online, at times pushed by anti-regime activists, that had been quickly debunked by experts.

Trudeau’s post had been retweeted over 6,000 times before being removed. The false news was also tweeted by celebrities with a sizable following.

“Justin Trudeau was perhaps one of the most-shared and influential proponents of the story,” said Marc Owen Jones, an associate professor at Qatar’s Hamad Bin Khalifa University who specializes in digital disinformation. “Given his general reputation as someone who is not particularly sensationalist or misleading, it certainly gave legitimacy to the misinformation.”

The incident shows the far reach of misinformation in the age of social media and its amplification by those in positions of power amid limitations on independent reporting from the ground.

A Canadian government spokesperson told CNN that the tweet was deleted because it “was informed by initial reporting that was incomplete and lacked necessary context.”

“It was based on reporting of serious concerns raised by international human rights advocates warning of possible future sentences, including the death penalty, imposed on thousands of Iranian protesters who have already been detained by the regime,” the spokesperson added.

Instagram, where one post citing the false news went viral, tagged it as “false Information” and said, “independent fact-checkers say this information has no basis in fact.”

According to Iranian state media, five protesters have so far been sentenced to death.

So how did the false news about 15,000 death sentences spread?

Last week, Javaid Rehman, the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, said that “over the past six weeks, thousands of men, women, and children – by some accounts over 14,000 persons – have been arrested, which includes human rights defenders, students, lawyers, journalists, and civil society activists.”

That number claims to be the total number of those arrested since the beginning of the protests. CNN cannot independently verify the arrest figure or the death toll – precise figures are difficult for anyone outside the Iranian government to confirm – and different estimates have been given by opposition groups, international rights organizations and local journalists.

The viral social media post and Justin Trudeau’s tweet appeared to conflate the estimated number of those arrested with those facing the death penalty. While some Iranian protesters have been charged with crimes punishable by death, not all of those arrested have been.

“As of Friday, we were aware of nine cases in which the charge could carry the death penalty but we expect the number to be higher,” said Tara Sepehri Far a senior researcher in the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch.

Some protesters have also been freed since their arrest and it is unclear how many of the estimated 14,000 arrested remain in prison.

The social media posts pushing the false narrative also referred to a November 6 letter signed by 227 of Iran’s 290 members of parliament that urged the country’s judiciary to “show no leniency” to protesters. That letter carries no legislative weight, and it didn’t specify a method of punishment, but did refer to the Islamic concept of ‘qisas’ or eye-for-an-eye retributive justice.

“Public sham trials as well as the letter sent by MPs are part of the system’s tactic to portray their narrative of what is happening in Iran and intimidate protestors,” according to Sepehri Far.

Some Western news outlets published headlines that may have contributed to the spread of the false narrative. Newsweek published an article with the headline “Iran votes to execute protesters, says rebels need ‘hard lesson’,” but corrected it on Tuesday to remove references to parliament voting for death sentences. It also ran the headline “Iran protesters refuse to back down as 15,000 face execution,” which was corrected. London-based Iran International meanwhile published a piece titled “Iranian lawmakers urge judiciary to sentence protesters to death.”

The threat of mass executions however is real and persists in Iran. The New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) has accused Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi of crimes against humanity for being part of a four-man “death committee” that oversaw the execution of up to 5,000 political prisoners in 1988. His two years as Iran’s chief justice were marked by the intensified repression of dissent and human rights abuses. Amnesty International has demanded that he be investigated for alleged crimes against humanity over the deaths.

At least 326 people were killed in the protests, human rights organizations have said. CNN cannot independently verify the toll.

“Executions still continue to be a key part of the regime’s attempts to silence and control Iran’s people – in the past decade the Islamic Republic has consistently ranked as the top executioner per capita in the world,” said Gissou Nia, a human rights expert at the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C.

Sepehri Far of Human Rights Watch said the incident plays into the hands of the Iranian government “because they’ve committed enough atrocities… it gives them an opportunity to point to conspiracy theories.”

State news outlets covered the deletion of the tweet, accusing Canada of spreading false information and supporting “rioters.”

Iran’s foreign ministry didn’t respond to CNN’s request for comment on Trudeau’s tweet, but Seyed Mohammad Marandi, an Iranian professor with close ties to the regime, was quick to respond, calling the prime minister “so morally bankrupt that he will repeat any lie to achieve his objective.”

Jones noted that a government official “taking an unsubstantiated claim based solely on media reporting is quite worrying. World leaders should be getting better intel, ideally from their own government about such stories before tweeting, especially when those claims are about something so egregious.”

With additional reporting by Abbas Al Lawati.

The digest

US sinks ship carrying ‘explosive materials from Iran to Yemen’

US Naval Forces intercepted a “large quantity” of explosive material in the Gulf of Oman heading to Yemen from Iran last week, the US Naval Forces Central Command said in a statement Monday. US forces found more than 70 tons of ammonium perchlorate, “a powerful oxidizer commonly used to make rocket and missile fuel as well as explosives,” it said. The vessel was sunk on November 13 in the Gulf of Oman after US forces determined it was a hazard to navigation for commercial shipping.

  • Background: A Saudi-led military coalition battling the Iran-aligned Houthis in Yemen since 2015 has repeatedly accused Iran of supplying the group with weapons, a charge Tehran denies.
  • Why it matters: The interception takes place following the end of a six-month, United Nations-brokered truce in Yemen last month that saw a significant drop in hostilities. The Houthis, who have launched missiles at Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in the past, have threatened to attack the two countries since the truce ended.

Israel says it won’t allow FBI to investigate its military in Abu Akleh’s killing

Israel will not allow the American FBI to investigate its soldiers over the death of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said Tuesday. In a statement at the Israeli Parliament and then in a tweet, Lapid said the Israel Defense Forces is a “moral and ethical army” that “thoroughly investigate[s] any irregular event and are committed to the values and laws of democracy.”

  • Background: Abu Akleh’s family has long called for the FBI to investigate her killing - something the department regularly does for Americans killed overseas. Israeli media reported Monday that US officials informed their Israeli counterparts they may be requesting materials related to the Al Jazeera’s correspondent’s death while covering an Israeli military raid in the West Bank.
  • Why it matters: Lapid’s comments appear to be confirmation of a previously unknown American investigation into the shooting of the Al Jazeera correspondent in Jenin in May. A US State Department-led forensic examination in July of the bullet that killed Abu Akleh was inconclusive but found that she was most likely killed by unintentional Israeli fire. The Israeli military admitted in September there was a “high possibility” one of its troops had shot the journalist, but said it was impossible to be certain.

Suicide drone attacked commercial ship in Gulf of Oman, US military says

A suicide drone attacked a commercial ship in the Gulf of Oman on Monday evening, but it did not cause major damage, according to a US military official. The drone struck the Pacific Zircon at approximately 10pm local time, the official said. The ship, registered in Liberia, West Africa, is an Israeli-affiliated cargo ship that was carrying gas oil. The attack did not disable the ship or interrupt its journey, the official said.

  • Background: The Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman had been the site of suspected tit-for-tat attacks between Iran and its adversaries three years ago amid heightened tensions in the region.
  • Why it matters: Though there is no attribution for the attack, the weapon and the target fit the pattern of attacks linked to Iran in the past. On July 30, 2021, an armed drone attacked the Mercer Street off the coast of Oman, killing two. The cargo ship was associated with an Israeli billionaire.

Around the region

A scientist holds maggots while they eat through food waste.

The UAE has one of the highest rates of food waste in the world, with approximately 40% of the country’s food going to waste.

Now, a startup in the capital Abu Dhabi is counting on insects to help reduce the environmental impact of the problem.

In a small testing room at Masdar City’s accelerator lab, Circa BioTech is farming black soldier fly larvae, maggots known for thriving on wasted food.

“It’s able to consume 500 times its body weight and grow in [a] matter of 10 days,” says Kristine Wong, one of the founders. Currently, the insects are eating 100 kilograms of food waste per day. With plans to relocate to a larger facility, the company is hoping that number grows to three tons a day.

Food that ends up in landfills generates high levels of CO2 and methane emissions, primary contributors to climate change.

Circa Biotech’s initiative doesn’t stop at reducing waste. “What we hope to do is to reduce the waste and transform it,” says Wong. The company aims to put raw materials back into the economy. Once the wasted food is consumed, the company harvests and upcycles the insects to produce refined products.

“When we harvest these insects we get a high-quality protein, which can be used for chicken feed. If we put them in an oil grinder, we get oil from them, which can be a supplement for the animal feed as well,” she said. “And then last of all, the excretion of the insects produce high-quality fertilizers, which can be used for plants.”

By Tawanda Scott Sambou

Photo of the day

Right to left: Rivka Goldknopf, Ayala Ben Gvir, Sara Netanyahu, Yaffa Deri, Galit Maoz

Ayala Ben Gvir, the wife of the rising far-right Israeli politician Itamar Ben Gvir, caused a stir in Israeli media on Monday when she posed with the wives of the incoming Israeli coalition leaders with a gun hoisted to her skirt.  

Standing alongside Sara Netanyahu, wife of soon-to-be-returning Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Ben Gvir’s handgun can be seen strapped to a belt holster wrapped around her skirt. While it’s not unusual for Israeli settlers who live in the occupied West Bank to be armed, Ben Gvir’s decision to carry the gun to such a meeting in Jerusalem is being seen as a very clear message: The right-wing settlers are the new power brokers in this next government.  

“Yes, I have a gun. Deal with it,” Ayala Ben Gvir tweeted in response to reactions to the photo, adding that she is the wife of “the most threatened man in the country.” 

By Hadas Gold