Nobel laureate explains how misinformation helped spur a humanitarian catastrophe

In Pearson Global Forum keynote, journalist Tawakkol Karman discusses conflict in Yemen

Misinformation, falsification of the facts or, “at best, the presentation of half of the story,” are among the worst manifestations of the ongoing conflict in Yemen, said Nobel Peace Prize laureate Tawakkol Karman during the 2021 Pearson Global Forum

Known as the “mother of the revolution” in her home country, the Yemeni journalist was one of several leaders, policymakers and scholars who spoke during the forum, hosted last month by the University of Chicago. In her Oct. 13 keynote address, she discussed attempts to undermine the Arab Spring revolutions that democratized countries across the region—and how counter-revolution efforts have continued amid “a shameful and painful global silence.”

“Yemen is experiencing the worst humanitarian catastrophe the world has witnessed in decades,” Karman said.

As a keynote speaker, Karman offered just one lens for this year’s Pearson Global Forum, which examined how misinformation and disinformation have flourished in the digital age and affected conflict around the world. Held virtually Oct. 12-14, the fourth annual event was hosted by the Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflicts at UChicago’s Harris School of Public Policy.

The forum focused on the manipulation of knowledge and the impact of social media on global affairs; the impact of misinformation in Yemen, Iran and Saudi Arabia; and artificial intelligence and international security, cyber abuse, security and defense.

“Misinformation and disinformation in a world undergoing a digital revolution have profound implications for our future, particularly when it comes to global conflict,” said Prof. James A. Robinson, director of the Pearson Institute. “The world-class leaders, scholars and experts who participated in the Pearson Global Forum increased the depth of our understanding about these concerns and pointed out ways to inform policy and maximize the potential to prevent and resolve conflict.” 

Other keynote speakers this year’s forum were Brittany Kaiser, a whistleblower in the Cambridge Analytica data breach; and Brett Goldstein, former director of the Defense Digital Service, a team of data scientists, engineers and other experts at the U.S. Department of Defense.

In her introduction of Karman, Katherine Baicker, dean and the Emmett Dedmon Professor at Harris, noted that as “policymaking has always relied on good information,” the stakes have never been higher. “We’ve never had more information, but it’s never been harder to sort out the information from the noise and the misinformation in the world,” Baicker said.

Karman, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 with Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee, devoted her address to sorting out information—telling “the story of Yemen.” 

With its strategic location on the Red and Arabian seas, Yemen’s history stretches back thousands of years, she said. But, Karman added, when talking about the current civil war and Yemen’s path to peace, “it’s very important to start with the nature of the regime that was ousted by the peaceful Yemen revolution” during the Arab Spring.

She lambasted the “failed and corrupt authoritarian regime” of Ali Abdullah Saleh, who became the first president of Yemen in 1990 after leading North Yemen for more than two decades. After the 2012 ousting of Saleh, the subsequent transition to a democratic Yemeni state was derailed by “regional conspiracy and international betrayal.” War “is still destroying everything in Yemen,” Karman said, and the dream that ignited the revolution.

Unleashed in September 2014, the latest conflict began when the Iranian-backed Houthi movement (which officially calls itself Ansar Allah, or “Supporters of God”) invaded the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, conspiring with Saleh to disrupt a referendum on a new constitution.

A Saudi-led military intervention targeting the Houthis began in 2015, Karman said, “under the cover of supporting Yemini legitimacy. However, it is clear today that, after seven years of war, it has another agenda, [which is] to divide and destroy Yemen.”

The United Nations has labeled the situation the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis,” putting the civil war death toll at over 200,000 and estimating that 4 million people have been uprooted from their homes.

“The main reason for all the disasters that happened and are happening in Yemen is to make Yemeni people an example to other people in the region who dare to dream and talk about change,” Karman said. “There are many countries in the region who want to give their people a scary lesson.” 

A continued war, she added, is a danger to regional and global peace and security. 

She outlined several measures she sees as necessary to end the conflict, including stopping arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and preventing weapons from Iran reaching the Houthis. She also said the international community must live up to its pledge to push for an end to fighting and sponsor the transitional process for Yemen’s return to a functioning state. 

“Yemenis are ready and longing for peace,” Karman said.

—Adapted from a story first published by the Harris School of Public Policy.