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Special: The trouble with fake news and how you can spot it

Sahim Salim
Filed on September 28, 2020

(File)

Why would anyone in the right frame of mind cause anxiety among people?

How does fake news come into being? Does someone wake up one fine day and go, 'Today, I will create panic by concocting some news'? Or, is there a 'fun' element to it that ends up tickling the panic bone of society? What is the motivation behind fake news? There is no fame involved, for once the fake spreads or gets debunked, no one honours its creator for making up news. There is no money involved, for no one traces its author to give away a prize.

Is it a guessing game that offers some kind of toxic satisfaction for having 'predicted' something, even if it comes at the expense of having got 99.99 per cent guesses wrong? Are 'I told you so' bragging rights worth sending your fellow community members into a tizzy of concern and confusion?

Is the motivation for fake news spite? Revenge? Jealousy? Why would anyone in the right frame of mind cause anxiety among people?

Perhaps it is some random person thinking out loud. Maybe there is an evolution process for fake news that begins with a question. 'Is such and such thing being planned?' evolves to, 'Such and such thing is being planned', and finally to 'Such and such thing has been rolled out'.

The latest fake news doing the rounds in the UAE is about a 'second lockdown' because of the steadily increasing number of Covid-19 cases. This spread in the form of a screenshot of a tweet attributed to the UAE's Ministry of Interior (MoI). The fake tweet asked people to "self quarantine, stay home and stay safe". Isn't a screenshot the biggest giveaway of false news? Why screenshot a tweet? Why not post the link to the tweet? With forwarding being a two-second job that involves three taps on the phone, logic isn't a priority. Some serial forwarders even forward the standard disclaimer: As received. A quick Internet search will reveal if such a tweet exists. Oh wait, that would involve more than three taps on the phone.

The MoI had to take to social media to debunk the social media rumour. It had to actually dictate common sense to people: Obtain information from official sources and don't circulate rumours or news issued by fake accounts.

The pandemic that the world is battling becomes more complex with fake news that seems to spread faster than the virus.

When the UAE reported its first few cases of Covid-19, authorities were working double-time to debunk false claims about people getting infected - or worse, dying - at universities, malls and airports. When movement restrictions were imposed in the country as a precautionary measure against the spread of the virus, 'tip-offs' about the need to stock up on essentials went viral. It didn't help that some so-called social media influencers posted videos of their kitchen shelves having food items to feed an army.

Many friends and relatives called, asking if they should buy 10kg of onions instead of 1kg, or if they should buy enough to last them a month instead of a week. Perhaps they wanted me to give them the 'inside story' of the situation that they thought was getting out of hand because of the social media rumours. But, like the UAE promised months ago, the country's stores never ran out of anything. Stocking up was a waste of money and efforts.

The rumours at the time started getting absurd. WhatsApp messages offered everything from a Covid-19 cure to ways to preventing it. Conversations would go something like this:

Friend: Hey, did you read about that cure for Covid-19?

Me (sensing a news break): Oh, where did you see it? Book? Newspaper?

Friend: On WhatsApp, wait, I will forward it.

Fake news spreads not because of the person who creates it. It spreads because of the people who forward it. That's why the UAE laws around fake news make "publishing" and "circulating" misleading claims an offence punishable by imprisonment and tens of thousands of dirhams in fines. You are not responsible for 'receiving' bogus news, but you will be held accountable for hitting that forward button without verifying it first. The moment you forward a message to others, the disclaimer fine print of you having received it from someone else and you not being responsible for its authenticity does not matter anymore. Only forward messages that you can endorse - without any terms and conditions. - sahim@khaleejtimes.com 


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