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How fake news becomes ‘fact’

The ease with which falsehood and hearsay goes viral is alarming, especially if it borders on spiteful intent

Gulf News

These days, the lines between truth and fiction have indeed been blurred.

What we see or what we read is often a misrepresentation of facts, and yet we tend to not question them.

Politicians have taken advantage of such human frailties as they continue to manipulate the truth through their outlandish boasts, or try to justify their actions, or else seduce us with schemes for making the world a better place.

The current government of the apartheid state of Israel is a good example of a country that continuously spreads falsehoods as facts.

There’s an old Jewish proverb that says: ‘What you don’t see with your eyes, don’t witness with your mouth.’

And yet, just how many of us can hold ourselves above such values today?

Rumour mills

Rumours are defined as pieces of unverified information and of uncertain origin.

In the not-so-distant past, our tongues were the main conduit for such propagation of untruths and our audience was limited to those within earshot.

But as technology gradually took over most of our daily functions, the mobile phone with instant messaging services today is the predominant source for the distribution of such unverified information.

By themselves, rumours range from the funny to the outlandish and, occasionally, to the downright malicious.

And the effortlessness through which they gather storm today, riding on the ease of pressing a key on your mobile phone, is alarming — especially if they border on spiteful intent.

Take the case of a message that made its rounds recently in this region.

Fake swine flu alert

While I deleted the message as soon as I had read it and cannot reprint the exact words, the contents went along the following lines: An employee of an international fast food franchise was discovered to be afflicted with the H1N1 (Swine Flu) virus, and patrons were well advised to stay clear of all the franchise outlets.

It implied that the franchise management were concealing such information from the general public. The message also stated the name of the worker.

This name was later found to be the name of a street in Cairo, on which several fast food outlets carried out their trade, raising assumptions about the origin of this particular SMS.

The intent of the message was obviously to hurt this particular franchise financially, for whatever reason.

I guess many of the recipients had exercised caution upon receiving the message by restraining themselves or their family members from eating at that particular franchise or other fast food outlets in general.

I say this with confidence as that particular message made its way through various emails with varying degrees of alerts and caution.

Swine Flu has been much in the news lately and one has to welcome the transparency exercised by the Saudi Ministry of Health in reporting and dealing with this latest outbreak.

Newspapers daily carry out items relating to new outbreaks discovered in Saudi Arabia and report on plans from the health officials on how to counter this pandemic head-on.

Had one of the workers at the fast food franchise in question been indeed a carrier of H1N1 virus, it would have certainly been reported by the ministry and immediately made public.

Unverified message

And yet many found it easier to believe an unverified message.

Is it a credibility issue or just human nature to believe in just about everything we are told, without making an effort to verify such claims?

Now, I know the folks running this particular enterprise in the Western region and I know for a fact that many of their own family members patronise the various outlets for their fare.

They follow extremely ethical business practices and I believe them when they rubbish such rumours.

Preying on human naivete and fears, such nasty and unverified messages invariably hurt honest establishments for no fault of their own.

Back in the 19th century, the distinguished English novelist, Maria Louise Rame, had written: "A cruel story runs on wheels, and every hand oils the wheels as they run."

So folks, the next time you receive a message claiming that the Queen of England has converted to Islam or the shampoo you are using will cause you cancer or the meat patties at a certain hamburger store are made of pork, contact the individual or establishment in question for verification or use authentic websites such as Snopes.com to check the veracity of such reports.

Otherwise, press delete on your mobile phone and move on.

Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Twitter: @talmaeena.

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