World Cup deaths: How and why do inaccurate figures spread?

19 Nov

In the reporting and criticism of the human rights situation in Qatar ahead of the World Cup, two figures referring to alleged migrant worker deaths in the Gulf state have been particularly prevalent: the 6,500 reported by The Guardian and the figure of 15,000 obtained from official Qatari statistics by Amnesty International.

 

DW has investigated the provenance and the veracity of these figures, as well as the definitions on which they are based, in a comprehensive fact check, but, in many respects, the damage has already been done, regardless.

These figures have long since entered the mainstream public debate and colored perspectives on Qatar and its World Cup, at least in Europe and the Western world, despite not necessarily being accurate or at the very least having been torn out of context.

How and why has this happened? Social media wildfire

Perhaps the most notorious figure is that of 6,500 — or, to be precise, 6,751 — a figure calculated by the reputable British daily The Guardian and published in February 2021, initially under the headline: "Revealed: 6,500 migrant workers have died in Qatar as it gears up for World Cup," later revised to: "6,500 migrant workers have died in Qatar since World Cup awarded."


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According to analysis by Marc Owen Jones, a Qatar-based researcher and expert on social media disinformation in the Middle East, not only did this become the most shared English-language article on Twitter regarding the 2022 World Cup, it also led to the figure "6,500" being tweeted in connection with the term "Qatar" over 400,000 times, as of October 2022.

DW's fact check and indeed the Guardian article itself

make clear where the figure came from and what it did and didn't refer to. Nevertheless, Jones' analysis found that, within 24 hours, the figure of "6,500" was being misinterpreted and disseminated in English, Spanish, French and Dutch as referring explicitly to deaths on "World Cup construction sites." 

For Jones, this can partly be explained by tropes in Western media reporting on Qatar and the Gulf in recent years. "Since 2010, there has been a consistent narrative about labor abuses in Qatar and the wider Gulf region, which obviously do occur. It's a very real problem," he told DW. "But it meant that, when it came to the 6,500 figure, people were somewhat primed to be receptive to that. And when you mention it in the context of the World Cup, people assume that it must be stadium related."

Screenshot of the Guardian headline: Screenshot of the Guardian headline: The figure of 6,500 in this report from The Guardian in February 2021 was quickly taken out of context and misinterpreted as referring explicitly to deaths on World Cup stadium construction sites.

Unfortunate choice of headline

If Jones considers such (mis)interpretations "common-sensical," he has less understanding for The Guardian's initial choice of headline. "6,500 is a big number which otherwise barely makes a splash in the rest of the article," he said. "The only reason you put that in the headline is sensationalism. The last thing I would say is that it was some malicious ploy but, in a social media age where people often don't read the full article, it was irresponsible."

Nicholas McGeehan, founding director of human rights research organization Fairsquare, considers the Guardian article a valid and important piece of reporting, but nevertheless questions the decision to run with the 6,500 headline, saying: "If you could make one criticism of that article, it would be that they could, or maybe even should, have recognized how that figure was likely to be misinterpreted in the context of information wars and disinformation."

McGeehan suggests that the more relevant story was actually the 69% of fatalities which were officially attributed to "natural causes" — and which therefore, in the absence of proper autopsies, have to be considered unexplained.

"The Guardian had a choice there, but they went with the 6,500 because it filled a legitimate gap in the information we had at the time, and so that was the story," he says. "But I'm not sure that the figure has been all that helpful. Although it has focused attention on the right issues, it's done it with the wrong number."

The authors of the article in question have been approached for a response regarding the choice of headine, but have pointed out in previous correspondence with DW, as indeed they did in the original article, that the precise context of the 6,500 figure is quite clear to those who read beyond the headline.

Disinformation driven by racism?

The response from Qatar itself to the widely quoted figures has frequently been to accuse Western media and indeed Western football supporters more generally of Orientalism and Islamophobia.

Does this explain the extent to which such figures have spread? "I do think there is an element of that," opines Jones. "A key tenet of Orientalism is the belief that the non-Western or non-European world is more brutal and barbaric. So, if you believe there is an element of brutality in that region, you're more likely to be receptive to believing that these figures are credible."

McGeehan doesn't dispute that Orientalism and racism exist in the Western world and its media, but feels that such accusations only serve to distract from real issues. "I think it's a nonsense line being put about by Qatar-based academics, and now also by the Qatari authorities themselves," he says. "Is there Orientalism and Islamophobia in the West? Of course there is. Does it seep into coverage of the World Cup in the form of problematic stereotypes? Yes, it does.

"But it should not distract from valid criticism and a lot of the journalism on Qatar, which in my experience has been very good and very nuanced, from people who are genuinely trying to make sense of the issues."

'Winter World Cup not a valid criticism'

Such criticism of European football supporters is equally misplaced — especially in Germany, where protests against the World Cup in Qatar have been driven by fan groups and initiatives that have their roots in anti-racism and anti-discrimination. However, according to Nadim Rai, a Syrian-German expert in Middle Eastern football and fan culture, speaking at a recent discussion event staged by the German Sports and Olympic Museum in Cologne, it depends on the arguments used.

"When people in Europe say the problem is that the World Cup is in winter or that they'll have to watch the games at the Christmas markets, that's not a valid argument," he told DW. He added that the media in the Arab world often pick up on such arguments and present them as evidence of racism and Islamophobia.

"Furthermore, other media outlets often accuse the West of hypocrisy and double standards by suggesting that there were no calls to boycott the World Cup in Russia in 2018," Rai continues. "But I don't see it that way. The World Cup in Qatar may have become a big mainstream topic [in Germany and Europe] in the past few weeks but football supporters have been highlighting problems for years.

"Only, the issue wasn't pertinent enough for most people." But now, as the World Cup has drawn closer and the focus on alleged migrant deaths in Qatar has intensified, the rate at which facts and figures are shared and spread has also increased. Whether due to confirmation bias, narrow angles, reporting patterns, poorly chosen headlines or indeed elements of subconcious racism and ignorance of the Arab world, one thing is clear: it's come at the expense of context and accuracy.

 

Edited by: Davis VanOpdorp

Autor Matt Ford

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