US President Donald Trump claimed he made a last-minute decision to call off military action against Iran, while the Islamic Republic was displaying debris it claimed came from a shot down US military drone.

This incident in June 2019 brought the US and Iran dangerously close to military confrontation.

The escalation in tensions between the two polarised nations was prefaced by a US reversal in the JCPOA nuclear deal, tanker tussles in the Strait of Hormuz and seas elsewhere, as well as hawkish rhetoric from both sides.

As the delicate and volatile security situation played out politically, a news agency report circled the globe citing an Iranian military general as saying that US forces in the region were “an opportunity” and “susceptible” to Iran’s missiles.

The report was false.

An investigation by the Ruptly Verification Unit details how we uncovered the misinformation and investigated its reach across the globe.

Investigation summary:

Our investigation focuses on a news report published on June 21, 2019, by another news agency. It contained an inaccurate quote attributed to a senior Iranian military figure.

Screenshot of the news article containing inaccurate quote attributed to a senior Iranian military figure.

Other global news organisations published the same misinformation — one of those news reports was later removed without correction.

The inaccuracy relates to a quote by Iran’s General Hajizadeh, citing Iranian state TV. The statement quoted was, in fact, made seven months before the article was published.

The quote in the news agency article read [June 21, 2019]:

“U.S. forces in the region were a threat, but they are now an opportunity (for Iran)… They do not talk about war with Iran, because they know how susceptible they are,” the head of the Guards’ aerospace division, Amirali Hajizadeh, said on state television.

General Hajizadeh did not make this statement on June 21, 2019. He made the statement on November 21, 2018, in an interview on the Soraya TV programme aired on Iranian state TV, IRIB.

We knew the news agency report was inaccurate because we covered the statement one day after it was originally made. The false news report published a different translation of the same quote.

The quote made on Soraya [November 21, 2018]:

“Before they were a threat for us, now they are an opportunity. Why don’t they talk about war with us? It is because they are vulnerable.”

To provide evidence that the same statement was not repeated verbatim on June 21 by General Hajizadeh, we fact-checked the news agency report.

We cross-checked the date, reviewed the attribution credit to Iranian state TV, translated and analysed all state TV output from the press conference and from the Soraya interview.

This investigation aims to provide an insight into our fact-checking research methods. Its intention is to demonstrate that we care deeply about the accuracy of our content and our responsibility to our clients.

Our investigation concluded that the article published by another news agency was inaccurate, containing alarming misinformation that spread across the world during a tense military stand-off between Iran and the US.

It is worth noting that Iran has often expressed this position, threatening US forces in the Gulf region. Indeed, on September 15, 2019, Iran again repeated this sentiment.

However, the news agency report we investigated embellished old comment as new comment, which was false as it had no connection to the date the report was published.

In the nature of transparency, we informed Reuters of the issue. We received the following response:

“Reuters snapped the quote from Iranian state television [IRINN] which we always monitor live, on June 21. The quote reflects Iran’s usual stance, so it is no surprise that it has been issued on numerous occasions before, including within the article you cite, in September and even in 2012.”

Based on the extensive analysis conducted on the IRINN output of June 21, Ruptly requested further clarification but wasn’t provided with any additional detail.

Investigation in-depth:

In this section we explain the steps we took to fact-check the elements referenced in the inaccurate news report.

We analysed the press conference for the potential source of the article citation through analysis of all Iranian state TV and media output on June 21.

We also reviewed three separate translations of all Hajizadeh press conference-related statements and the Soraya broadcast to determine the interpretation from Farsi to English.

Here we breakdown our full process:

Press conference:

Our Tehran-based cameraman covered the general’s press statement made to domestic and international media on June 21, 2019, when the alleged drone debris was displayed.

Our cameraman’s footage from that press statement showed the microphones of 15 television media, including Ruptly. Five microphones were domestic state TV, while the other 10 were international TV media.

Domestic state TV present were: IRIB, IRINN, Al Alam TV, Press TV and Hispan TV. International media present were: U News Agency (Lebanon), AP (US), Al Masirah (Yemen), RT (Russia), Al Mayadeen (Lebanon), Al-Manar (Lebanon), ILKHA (Turkey), TV5 (Turkey), Kudus TV (Turkey) and Ruptly (Germany).

Screenshot of Ruptly footage identifying microphones of TV media at the June 21, 2019, press conference of Iran’s General Hajizadeh

We examined all the June 21 press conference-related output by Iran’s state TV that we knew were present at the press conference. This initial review was carried out by our cameraman in Tehran and then re-analysed by another native Farsi-speaking journalist in our newsroom.

The basis of our review was to determine if this quote [below] was reported by state TV on June 21.

“U.S. forces in the region were a threat, but they are now an opportunity (for Iran)… They do not talk about war with Iran, because they know how susceptible they are.”

Some output published by Iranian state media we analysed:

Our cameraman and our newsroom journalist also applied the same critique to all the June 21 output of Iran’s other state media that reported on the Hajizadeh press statement, including:

Our analysis of the quote and its attribution concluded that the statement was not made on June 21 and the quote was not reported by state TV, as cited in the false news report.

Translations:

Our native Farsi-speaking newsroom journalist then translated the following:

  • June 21 Hajizadeh press statement (edited Ruptly version here).
  • June 21 sideline interviews Hajizadeh gave to IRIB, IRINN and Press TV.
  • Soraya interview with Hajizadeh aired on November 21, 2018 (edited Ruptly version here).

We also sought the independent services of a Farsi-to-English translator to transcribe the same five above-referenced Hajizadeh statements.

The aim was to determine if the translation could have a different interpretation dependent on the translator.

However, our three translations, by our Tehran cameraman, our newsroom journalist and an independent translator, all produced the same result. We discovered that the false news report had a different translation of the exact same Hajizadeh quote.

News report translation:

“U.S. forces in the region were a threat, but they are now an opportunity (for Iran)… They do not talk about war with Iran, because they know how susceptible they are.”

Ruptly translation:

“Before they were a threat for us, now they are an opportunity. Why don’t they talk about war with us? It is because they are vulnerable.”