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Rumours can at times travel faster than the wind, and with the use of social media platforms, the cannon can go off even quicker. In the UAE, such triggers are spotted and quashed in the beginning itself. We take a look at rumour-mongers, the psychology behind it and impact of rumours, the rules in the UAE and how they are quashed.

A rumour case study in UAE

In 2017, a video that circulated through WhatsApp in the UAE was a rumour about plastic rice allegedly sold in Dubai market.

The rumour claimed that a particular country was responsible for manufacturing the plastic rice. The rumour went on to claim that the rice was exported to other countries and consumed by people who were unaware of what they were actually eating. The false report also claimed that the “rice” was made by mixing potatoes, sweet potatoes and plastic. The potatoes, according to the rumour, were formed into the shape of rice grains and industrial synthetic resins were added to the mix. The rice reportedly remained hard even after being cooked.

Inspectors and specialists from the Public Health and Safety Department stepped in quashed the rumour and denied the existence of such a product in Dubai.

“The municipality does not spare any effort in maintaining public health and protect the public from any risks, and have devoted a large force of observers and inspectors in all areas concerning the protection of public health and food," said Dubai civic body.

After the concerned parties carried out a thorough investigation, the director of the Food Safety Department issued a clarification stating that the alleged social media reports lacked credibility. The authority also stressed that the rumour indicated a clear malicious intent to discredit the level of food safety among all types of rice products in the market.

What is a rumour? Understanding the psychology of rumours

Anyone can create a rumour or spread it. They may even dramatise the information because it does not require validation, said Dr Mohamed Yousaf, Specialist — Psychiatry, Aster Clinic — Mutheena.

To highlight the implication of a rumour, he narrated a rumour that went viral in the US and its impact: “Tropical Fantasy Soda Pop ‘is made by the Ku-Klux-Klan and contains a formula to make black men sterile’. The rumour spread like a wildfire in Harlem, New York in 1971, causing unnecessary disturbances among the people and the people even rounded up the company’s delivery vans. It cost the small company a massive 70 per cent loss of revenue. Of course, the company was able to prove its innocence, winning back most of its customers. But the company paid a heavy price — its credibility.”

Why do people spread rumours?

People spread rumours when they feel insecure, feel concerned, want to feel important, want to be competent among a group, crave for attention, feel inadequate, want to retaliate, feel boredom, believe the information that they hear, feel that the rumour elevates their self-image, or feel that the rumour increases their social worth, explains Dr Mohamed Yousaf.

Rumours are counterproductive both for the individual and for the society.

- Dr Mohamed Yousaf, psychiatrist

“Perhaps, to them, spreading the rumour makes sense of something that is already perplexing and not clear.

“Now, we know social media has allowed people to stay connected and they can spread information through a large group of people quickly. It additionally helps them to be informed and stay ahead of the ongoing issues. Even common people can share their own opinions and observations. This broadens the ambit and diverseness of information that one can pass on to others and triggers the spread of information often lacking evidence or substance as a rumour. These rumours can spread expeditiously to a large number of people, having a strong influence on their perception, despite the information being unverified.

“Rumours are counterproductive both for the individual and for the society,” he said.

Rumour mongers face jail term in the UAE

People who spread rumors through online mediums, via voice calls or face-to-face are liable for criminal accountability.

Wageh Amin Abdelaziz, senior legal advisor at World Center Advocates and Legal Consultants, told Gulf News that rumour mongers can be jailed for a minimum of one year.

“Emirati legislators were aware of the dangers of spreading rumours and described it as a crime. As per Article 198 of UAE Federal law number 3 for 1987, punishment is minimum one year in jail,” said Abdelaziz.

All of us has a moral duty, especially during a crisis. The UAE took unprecedented measures to curb the pandemic and we should, at least, aid the efforts by not sharing rumours.

- Wageh Amin Abdelaziz, senior legal advisor

He said the law described rumour mongers as someone who intentionally disseminates false or malicious news, statements or disruptive propaganda intending to prejudice the public security or to spread fear among people without verifying the source of the news.

“Amid the spread of COVID-19 pandemic, rumours circulated in many countries and caused panic and fear among societies. Reasons behind spreading rumors are economic, social and psychological,” said Abdelaziz, adding that people has a patriotic role to play in the UAE by preventing the spread of rumours and get the news from official channels and sources to avoid punishment.

“All of us has a moral duty, especially during a crisis. The UAE took unprecedented measures to curb the pandemic and we should, at least, aid the efforts by not sharing rumors,” he said.

Online rumours and its consequences in UAE

Senior Prosecutor Dr Khalid Al Junaibi from Dubai Public Prosecution said people who forward false information and rumours on WhatsApp and other social-media platforms can face imprisonment for at least a year.

He said many messages circulated among the public on social media platforms comprise of false information that could undermine the stability of the community and create a negative sentiment.

People are responsible for the messages they forward to others. They cannot claim that they didn’t intend to circulate false information.

- Senior Prosecutor Dr Khalid Al Junaibi

“Many people forward the messages they receive without verifying them through official channels. Beware of this act as the message might be false information and you become a tool to spread it even if you have good intention,” Prosecutor Al Junaibi said.

“People are responsible for the messages they forward to others. They cannot claim that they didn’t intend to circulate false information.”

On April 2020, Dubai Police announced the arrest of an Asian man for posting a video on social medial that promotes fake news in a way that spreads fear among public.

Dubai Police urged public to report such activities to Police Eye service or the E-Crime platform on Dubai Police website and app.

Why do people fall for rumours?

When the rumours match their previously held notions, when the rumours emanate from a believable source, when the rumours are recognised repeatedly, and when the rumours are not proven wrong by anyone, people tend to believe rumours — even the irrational ones, says Dr Mohamed Yousaf, psychiatrist.

According to Dr Laila Mohamadien, Specialist Psychiatrist, Medcare Hospital, Sharjah, uncertainty is the main cause. Uncertainty leads to anxiety. “Anxious people are more prone to spreading rumours as a coping mechanism to get out of the stress by finding and applying an acceptable explanation to a vague situation.

2) When they believe that the information is essential, they tend to spread it faster, as part of self-esteem, self-importance as they believe they know better, and people have to come to them for more verification.

3) When they believe in the information or the rumour is valid, they relieve themselves by increasing the scope of the believer to get rid of any hesitancy about it, the more it spreads, the more it is true.

4) Secondary gain: to gain benefit of spreading some information to increase the sale of a particular product.

Verifying fake news: Dubai Municipality

One such body that tackles rumours head-on is Dubai Municipality, who like other government bodies, bear the responsibility to verify news on social media that are related to public health and safety. The Dubai Central Laboratory is the authorised department designated to analysing products and goods in the market to ensure that the brand or product in question is safe.

Sultan Al Taher

The majority of rumours that float around social media usually concerns food, “but during 2020 the total number of rumours we had to address went down, mainly due to COVID-19,” said Sultan Al Taher, manager of the food inspection section at Dubai Municipality.

“In my section, we work with the food safety department and our media department to handle food-related rumours,” Al Taher explained.

Once a rumour is flagged, the Dubai Central Laboratory will analyse the food product and issue a report, which is then forwarded to a food safety specialist. In collaboration with Dubai Municipality’s media department, a clarification on the rumour is subsequently issued through its social media accounts on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, in addition to posting an update on the municipality’s website.

What can you do to deal with rumours
Image Credit: Vijith Pulikkal, Assistant Product Manager

Tackling rumours in UAE

With high internet penetration in the UAE, authorities have embarked on a steadfast battle against online rumour-mongering, most notably with the introduction of the cybercrime law in 2012. While some rumours can be taken with a pinch of salt, others can be more malicious and harder to ignore, which is why the government engages in extensive monitoring of social media and apps.

July 15, 2020
People who forward false information and rumours on WhatsApp and other social media platforms can be jailed for up to a year, Dubai Public Prosecution has warned.

Various legal and administrative efforts have also been taken to tackle the problem of fake news and to ensure that information spread across social media platforms are accurate and verified. Such measures include the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA)’s role in blocking misinformation, public awareness campaigns by government bodies, and the installation of eCrime departments in the UAE police force, who all collaborate to stop the spread of rumours on social media.

To verify rumours, residents can contact Dubai Municipality’s call centre on 800-900 or on its WhatsApp account +971-50-1077799.

In a statement on its website, Dubai Municipality said: “We strive to provide [residents] with reliable news about the safety, and validity of any product or material found in Dubai, in order to avoid rumours and fake news.

“Our concern for public health and safety leads the Food Safety Department to investigate the rumours that circulate around food issues, in order to provide [residents] with scientific clarifications based on reliable laboratory tests.”

The municipality emphasised there are many rumours that circulate around consumer products and materials, whether about health, food or building and construction materials. “At Dubai Central Laboratory Department, we immediately check the rumour’s validity and accuracy, to provide residents and visitors with reliable news regarding public health and safety matters,” it said.

What are the mental damages that rumours can cause?

The impact of rumours can be both immediate and long-standing, explains Dr Mohamed Yousaf, Dubai-based psychiatrist. “When you hear disturbing rumours, they can alter your emotions and cause mood swings.

“How long the rumour can stay with you depends on how profound your reactions to the rumours have been. In many cases, if you hear about the same issue repeatedly, your reaction can be triggered again. Most of the times, rumours are harmless, but there is a snap point where rumours can affect your wellbeing.

Rumours that are spread about physical appearance, character, or on loved ones can affect children, teenagers and adults. It is important not to have rumours waved off. If not addressed, it may seriously affect your physical and mental health.

- Dr Mohamed Yousaf, Dubai-based psychiatrist

“Fatigue, nervousness, aggressiveness, dejection, panic attacks, guilt, and sometimes even suicidal ideations are some of the ill-effects of rumours,”  Dr Mohamed Yousaf said.

There are a lot of bad consequences of rumours and fake news, specifically on mental health, explains Dr Laila Mohamadien, Sharjah-based psychiatrist.

Rumours may lead us to on to wrong paths in life if we leave our life decisions and guidance to rumours, without verifying the source and logic behind the rumour, said Dr. Laila. For instance, if we trust all vaccine rumours and do not adhere to UAE health ministry, WHO and CDC guidelines, then we are in for trouble, explained Dr. Laila.

On an individual level, rumours could change your mood, raise anxiety, excessive worry, impulsiveness in taking decisions, depression, increase the feeling of aggression and violence.

- Dr Laila Mohamadien, Sharjah-based psychiatrist
UAE quashes rumours a timeline
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UAE’s social media penetration

The UAE is among the most connected countries in the world with the highest level of social media penetration in 2020, according to a report published by Global Media Insight. With a population of 9.83 million, there are 9.73 million active internet users with 9.52 million active social media accounts (96.85%). The study also revealed that social media has a firm grasp over UAE residents, with 79% of residents reported to have WhatsApp and Facebook accounts, while 62% use Facebook Messenger, 68% use Instagram, 53% use Twitter, 30% use Snapchat, and 29% use TikTok.

Further data released by the social media management platform Hootsuite, in collaboration with the media company We Are Social, indicated that the UAE has accelerated figures in terms of internet usage in 2020.

“[The UAE] comes under 20 countries that have higher time spent on the internet each day. The Philippines and South Africa are carrying the highest time spent on the internet with over nine hours. However, the United Arab Emirates is having seven hours and three minutes of time spent each day using the internet,” the report said.