Toronto-based fact-checking site tries to loosen Iranian regime's grip on the truth

In an undisclosed location in Toronto, Farhad Souzanchi spends his days toiling away at a computer, filling a void half a world away for a rare commodity: facts.

Souzanchi runs an online platform in Persian called FactNameh ("Book of Facts") that verifies claims made by Iran's officials and media.

For instance, before Tehran admitted to shooting down Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752 last week, Souzanchi, using an aviation safety databasehighlighted false assertions made by Iranian authorities about the Boeing jet involved.

Iranian authorities are known to restrict access to information, and in these politically charged times, Iranians are eager to get at the truth and appear to be taking notice of the Toronto-based site, says Souzanchi.

Despite operating on a different continent, FactNameh purports to reach an audience of one million readers among Iran's population of 80 million, using satellite technology and encrypted messaging apps such as Telegram.

Craig Chivers/CBC

Using publicly available data and crowdsourced information, FactNameh has shown it can debunk government claims — even calling into question a crowd-size figure recently reported in the New York Times following the killing of Iran's top military leader, Maj.-Gen. Qassem Soleimani, in a U.S. drone strike.

"We felt that there's a need for this kind of work in Iran, where free media is a scarce thing," Souzanchi said in a phone interview with CBC News.

Poor press freedom

According to Journalists Without Borders, Iran has one of the worst track records for press freedom — it ranked 170th out of 180 countries in the 2019 world press freedom index, lower than countries such as Cuba, Egypt and Russia but ahead of China, Syria and North Korea.

The Islamic Republic's control of its citizens' access to information is again under scrutiny as anti-government protests roil the country following Iran's downing of the Ukrainian jetliner. Among the plane's 176 passengers were at least 82 Iranian nationals and 57 Canadian citizens.

Hossein Mersadi/Fars news agency/WANA/Reuters

FactNameh's work fact-checking an event leading up to the air disaster received international attention.

The Poynter Institute, a U.S.-based journalism organization, applauded FactNameh for its verification of the size of the crowds reported to be lining the streets for the funeral procession of Soleimani, killed in a U.S. drone strike on Jan. 3.

The New York Times tweeted that mourners stretched "over 30 km" in Ahvaz, Iran. But using online maps, traffic restriction information and other publicly available data and tools, Souzanchi and the team at FactNameh concluded the crowd could not be more than three kilometres long.

"FactNameh's eyes were sharp and ready to doubt the information tweeted by one of the most important newspapers in the world," Poynter said on its website.

'Facts matter'

Launched in 2017, FactNameh is part of ASL19, a larger Toronto-based technology group that devises strategies to fight restrictions on internet use. "ASL19" refers to the Farsi acronym for Article 19, the section on freedom of expression in the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The organization takes several steps to bypass internet censorship in Iran, including using Knapsack, a satellite data transfer system. According to that company's website, Knapsack transmits information which a user decodes with a TV set-top box.

"At the end of the day, facts matter," said ASL19's executive director, Fereidoon Bashar.

Organized disinformation campaigns pose a growing problem around the world, he said.

Saranaz Barforoush, a journalism instructor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, said fact-checking services are particularly important in Iran "or any nation that has such a complicated historical background."

Barforoush, who worked for 10 years as a journalist in Iran, said it would be helpful to know who funds FactNameh to better understand the group's motives.

"It's a very volatile time in the history of [Iran] and our people, and I think it's very important to be as transparent as possible," she said.

Bashar said FactNameh's funding comes from ASL19's sale of technology services as well as public funds but declined to elaborate, citing safety concerns.

Reuters

Security concerns

Operating the platform from Canada presents both opportunities and drawbacks, Bashar said. Being so far away, fact-checkers don't have in-person access to sources on the ground, and it's harder to reach people for comment.

"If we were inside the country, we could reach out to [government] offices, ask them for more information," the Iranian-born Souzanchi said. "It would make our lives easier."

The team members consider themselves to be at a lower risk for reprisals while operating from Toronto. They are convinced they would not be allowed to question authorities so openly while in Iran. The website would likely be shut down, and they could potentially be jailed, they said.

The ASL19 and FactNameh teams go to great lengths to stay safe, even in Canada. In fact, Souzanchi and Bashar might not even be their real names. They acknowledge some members of their staff use aliases, although they won't say which ones.

ASL19's website lists 14 team members but has no photos of them, only illustrations of their faces. And the site doesn't list phone numbers for staff but rather PGP keys for encrypted communication. 

"There is definitely a risk, even out here," Bashar said.