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Iranian President’s Plane Crash: How the Absence of Official News Enabled Misinformation To Spread

Misbar's Editorial Team Misbar's Editorial Team
22nd May 2024
Iranian President’s Plane Crash: How the Absence of Official News Enabled Misinformation To Spread
Photo of Raisi and Azerbaijani counterpart before the incident (Getty)

On the afternoon of Sunday, May 19, Iranian official media reported that a helicopter in President Ebrahim Raisi’s convoy had made a “difficult emergency landing” in a mountainous area near the border with Azerbaijan.

Tasnim Agency, affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, reported that “several people with the president were able to make phone calls, raising hope that this incident may not result in any human casualties.” The Iranian Interior Minister indicated that he had been in contact with Raisi's companions, stating that "given the complexity of the region, communication is somewhat challenging" and that bad weather conditions could hamper search efforts.

Subsequently, the semi-official Mehr News Agency reported that the president was fine and en route to Tabriz, only to retract the news minutes later after it had been picked up by dozens of media outlets. As rescue workers arrived in the area, state television showed footage of them moving in vehicles and on foot amid dense fog. The agency also asked viewers to pray for the safety of Raisi and his companions.

the semi-official Mehr News Agency reported that the president was fine and en route to Tabriz

In addition to updates from various Iranian government media outlets, many Arab and international media sources sought to contextualize the incident. This included a profile of Raisi by the BBC and analyses of the potential consequences of his confirmed death, especially considering the ongoing discussion in Iran about Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Speculation regarding potential successors for this role has been circulating, with focus on his son Mojtaba and the late President Raisi.

Khamenei Reassures the Iranian People After Raisi’s Plane Crash

Khamenei appeared on state television to address the situation, saying: “Everyone should pray for health of the president and his fellow servants. The nation doesn't need to be worried or anxious, as the administration of the country will not be disrupted.”

Later, the head of the Iranian Red Crescent told state television that relief workers had not made any contact with the helicopter and denied rumors to the contrary. Eventually, state media reported that the helicopter, initially described in news briefs as “crashed,” had been located. Unofficial media outlets, such as Mehr Agency, and some Western media outlets, including The Atlantic magazine, began leaking news that Raisi had been killed. The news was finally confirmed in a live bulletin broadcast by state television, announcing the deaths of Raisi, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian, the representative of the Supreme Leader in East Azerbaijan, its governor, and the rest of those on board the helicopter.

The Lack of Accurate News Fostered the Spread of Rumors

Between the news of the “emergency landing,” the confirmation of Raisi’s death, and the blurring of information for more than 15 hours, discussions flared up on social media and media outlets. On social media, the absence of correct news allowed information and misinformation to flourish, with accounts taking advantage of the delay in the official announcement of the plane crash to post photos from Raisi’s previous visits to Kerman, Kohgiluyeh, and Boyer Ahmad provinces as his first post-survival appearance. Due to the absence of photos and clips of the plane even after the crash, users tended to post photos of old aid plane wreckage, and clips from Georgia and Colombia as of the landing presidential plane, among dozens of other fake news.

The lack of information has also contributed to the spread of fake rumors, such as X users posting a screenshot from the FlightRadar24 traffic tracking software, showing a U.S. C-17 military cargo plane returning from Azerbaijan at the same time as the presidential plane crash, to ignite conspiracy theories, even though it is a normal procedure for two countries that have military cooperation, and the presence of an American air base in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku.

A sarcastic claim was also published by Israeli accounts on X platform saying that the captain of the plane was a Mossad agent named “Eli Copter.” The claim was eventually circulated among some accounts as being genuine.

the captain of the plane was a Mossad agent named “Eli Copter.

In the media, the absence of information was an opportunity to fill coverage with polarization and opinions rather than the events themselves. State television showed footage of some Iranians praying for Raisi, while opposition media pointed to his legacy of issuing death orders, suppressing opponents, and mass arrests of journalists. Meanwhile, Iran International, the largest Iranian opposition media outlet, based in London, shared footage that it said was of people setting off fireworks inside Iran. It also published an obituary with a headline that referred to Raisi as “a poorly educated religious who blundered into a failed presidency.”

Kourosh Ziabari, a media graduate at the University of Columbia said in an analysis to U.S. Newlines magazine about journalism realities in Iran: “When a major event with national security implications erupts, the Islamic Republic authorities expect all media organizations to follow a uniform, homogenous modus operandi, even by resorting to inaccuracies, so that they can oversee the discourse and engineer the public mood.”

In this case, the situation included downplaying and delaying real news about the seriousness of the situation, followed by media outlets in totalitarian states, a tactic that is not new, according to Ziabari, as state media lacks the trust of their potential audiences and, instead, end up directing importance and priority to private media or even smaller organizations elsewhere. Ziabari adds that rumors are as old as human society itself, and have always flourished during crises, wars, and periods of depression.

In a research paper by professors of psychology, Department of Social Relations at Harvard University, Gordon Allport and Leo Postman, published in 1946, entitled “An Analysis of Rumor,” the researchers lay down the basic law that says, “Rumor flies in the absence of news. Therefore, we must give people the most accurate news possible, promptly, and completely." 

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