Several media outlets across India are scrambling to control the damage after falsely attributing a two-year-old viral video where an Emirati columnist says “Jai Siya Ram” to His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces.
The video, shared by leading Indian channels such as Times Now and Zee News in the run up to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the UAE over the weekend, claimed that Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed had chanted the Hindu prayer greeting while addressing a spiritual programme conducted by the guru Morari Bapu in Abu Dhabi in September 2016.
But the story is patently false and Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed never attended any such event: the person in the video shown attending the ceremony is actually Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, a UAE-based columnist and commentator on Arab affairs.
In an online version of this column published earlier this week, Gulf News called out the glaring pattern of false propaganda evident in the viral video and stories — and the result was dramatic: the column itself went viral in India, was shared and picked up by several media outlets and widely cited by top journalists and commentators in the country as yet another example showing how some partisan news outfits were damaging the credibility of Indian media. It also triggered a wider debate on the politics of fake news, with some users on social media calling for more stringent norms by the Editors Guild in India to prevent such embarrassing and misleading episodes from recurring.
Fake news and distorted attributions are now a global phenomenon growing at an alarming intensity. Last year, fake news was the topmost concern for media companies around the world, and people shared as much of fake news over Twitter as they did real ones. But when several mainstream media outlets in the same country start spreading the same video at around the same time with similar false attributions, then there appears to be a sinister method in the madness. More than irresponsible click-bait journalism, it becomes a carefully choreographed attempt to spread false propaganda and gain political mileage in India.
From The Print:
An exercise in a similar vein was the fast-spreading “pictures” of the first Hindu temple in Abu Dhabi that went viral on Twitter and WhatsApp over last weekend — even before the temple’s ground-breaking ceremony had been completed, let alone its expected completion in 2020! What circulated instead were glimpses of the newly-constructed Lord Venkateshwara temple in New Jersey.
Mainstream Indian media is certainly no stranger to Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed — having extensively covered his two visits to India as the chief guest at the Indian Republic Day celebrations in 2017 and as a state guest in 2016. He was also at the forefront of the official receptions of Modi during the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to the UAE in 2015 and earlier this week. So the fact that they could not distinguish between Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed and someone else from the UAE is thus very unlikely, and raises several disturbing facts.
Propaganda and fake news
First, it is a clear indication that mainstream media in India is highly susceptible to propaganda and fake news, whether by choice or as acts of commission. They do not have adequate safeguards in place to prevent such distorted half-truths from spreading far and wide, and are incapable of verifying basic facts — which forms the backbone of responsible journalism.
More importantly, the digital footprints of the viral video and stories show a clear pattern. All the stories were uploaded between a similar period: just ahead of Modi’s arrival in UAE on February 10. And they all started the same way — at first were the gloating and unverified declarations. Times Now, for instance, tweeted the video at 3.45pm Indian time on February 10, noting: “When the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince was invited on stage to share his views, he began his speech with ‘Jai Siya Ram’, sending the crowd into frenzy.” Even though scores of alert Twitterati immediately pointed out the error to the channel, it retweeted the same video and text again at 12.05am on February 11. Later, the channel modified its story to note that “Abu Dhabi’s Shaikh Sultan started his speech with ‘Jai Siya Ram’” — carefully maintaining the Abu Dhabi link so that original resonance of the message was not lost, though Sultan Al Qasemi is not based in Abu Dhabi! It was only after the uproar following this column’s publication online that they ran a corrigendum on February 13, distancing themselves from the earlier post.
Similar patterns played out across a host of other channels — from mainstream Zee News to more right-leaning India.com, postcard.news and several similar sites — who seemed to revel in proliferating fake news based on unverified sources. Zee News finally deleted the story on February 13. With thousands of retweets, the same fake clip soon found traction in a section of regional news sites across India — from the Dainik Bhaskar in Hindi to ABP Ananda and 24 Ghanta in Bengali to Kannada Prabha in Kannada. The pattern of a fake and out-of-context video being deliberately recirculated multiple times by a selected section of the Indian media was a clear pointer that the objective of the exercise was to spread malicious propaganda on a swathe of unsuspecting news consumers.
Ironically, this fake and dangerous exercise gained traction on social media on a day when the Indian prime minister witnessed the groundbreaking ceremony of the first Hindu temple in Abu Dhabi — made possible by the generous gesture of Shaikh Mohammad in donating land to the Indian community for the purpose. In his speeches at various forums on Sunday, Modi spoke at length about how India and the UAE have come closer in the past few years, sharing deeply cherished common goals and values. The temple in Abu Dhabi is widely seen as one of those common values — it reflects the UAE’s moderation, tolerance and respect for all humanity irrespective of their faith or creed.
The BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha, which will manage the Abu Dhabi temple, itself came forward to thank Shaikh Mohammad for a noble gesture and said the decision reflected the “guiding vision of tolerance and harmony of the founding fathers of the UAE”. Indeed, the allotment of the land for the temple is a testament of the UAE’s pluralistic values and its respect for the Hindu community in the country, which makes up an important part of its expat population.
Any attempt by any groups to demean the goodwill gestures of Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed or the UAE leadership’s foundations of cultural coexistence for the sake of domestic political gains will not succeed, but could definitely derail the unprecedented momentum in bilateral relations that Modi and the UAE leadership have strived so hard to build in the past few years.
The culture and legacy of UAE-India relations are so similar that they revel in an amazing range of pluralism — in religion, language, ethnicity, food and so on. The allotment of the land for the temple in Abu Dhabi is in that spirit, and so is Sultan Al Qassemi’s greeting to the Indian diaspora at the 2016 gathering. Both India and the UAE are acutely aware of that strong foundation of mutual respect.
But some don’t seem to get it — and that’s why they revel in such fake news.