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Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Trapped in a sea of rumours

The recent parliamentary bill controlling popular social-media accounts cannot be the answer to the problem of fake news

Amina Khairy , Saturday 28 Jul 2018
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Views: 3381

The Egyptian people are floating on a sea of fake news, in other words of “rumours”. And despite the fact that the majority of Egyptians know that rumours have been controlling a great deal of their lives for the past seven years, they still think that whatever “news” they share on Facebook, or “facts” they retweet on Twitter, or even stories they retell in coffee shops, at bus stops or in metro carriages, are the truth and nothing but the truth.

However, the only truth here is that thousands of rumours can spread across Egypt in days. Most of these emanate from social media, get shared, retweeted and retold by various people, and then go back to social media again, where the cycle becomes complete.

“We are completely lost. They [the government] are now selling us plastic rice and eggs. What more do they intend to do,” wailed a Cairo taxi-driver. I asked him if Chinese plastic rice tasted like normal rice. He started stuttering and then said, “my cousin tells me it’s almost the same.” Needless to say, reaching the cousin who had eaten, digested and reviewed the plastic rice proved impossible.

Hundreds and maybe thousands of Websites, posts and tweets, resulting in millions of likes, shares, tweets and new posts based on recycling what has already been said, have made this plastic rice a fact that everybody knows about, but nobody has tasted.

The taste of a rumour is almost identical to that of news. And the taste of Chinese plastic rice goes well with Chinese plastic eggs. At least, this is how a recipe for Chinese fried rice goes. Add some spices and fresh vegetables, and all will go well in Egypt.

A few days ago, parliament added a bit of extra taste to such stories. MP Faika Fahim submitted a question to the government, stating that the spread of plastic Chinese eggs in Egypt had meant the spread of “chemical eggs” that would cause serious health problems for the liver and digestive system.

The official response was that there had been no such thing as plastic eggs imported into Egypt in the first place. Head of the Poultry Division at the Cairo Chamber of Commerce Abdel-Aziz Al-Sayed said that the existence of plastic eggs in Egypt was a “baseless rumour” and that any news and videos shared on the Internet about them were completely false, especially as Egypt does not even import eggs.

However, even though Egypt does not import eggs, it does import, consume, enjoy and recycle fake news and rumours.

Social media and political, social and religious polarisation, in addition to the lack of awareness needed to differentiate fake and real news, have led to an environment saturated with fake and real news of unknown origin.

In 2017, the Communication and Information Technology in parliament conducted a study revealing that 53,000 rumours had spread in Egypt in 60 days.

The study found that most of these had originated and circulated on social-media platforms. What is even more alarming is that traditional media outlets have been and still are citing these rumours as if they were real news.

Over the past few days alone, Egyptians have immersed themselves in rumours of all kinds. They include the news that football star Mohamed Salah is quitting the national team (this one was initiated by foreign news outlets CNN and the Independent), that the Ministry of Supply is adding additives to bread that will lead to a decrease in fertility rates, that the Egyptian banks are on the verge of bankruptcy, that there was an act of terror at Cairo International Airport, and that the organs of children are being trafficked.

These and hundreds of other such rumours and fake news have been circulated, told and retold, posted and shared, and tweeted and retweeted.

Never before has Egyptian society fallen into such a trap. In war time, the authorities used to warn people against believing, circulating or trusting rumours. However, in war time, the last being in 1973, there was no Internet, Facebook, sharing, liking, blocking, unfriending, twittering, tweeting or even SMS.

In June 2012, the UK newspaper the Financial Times published an article entitled “Egypt’s Republic of Rumours”. Even though the article sided with the Muslim Brothers and described its Brotherhood sources as “activists,” it pinpointed a newly found blessing among Egyptians: a voice and an opinion.

“Egypt today has become a republic of rumours, where citizens are more or less free to voice their opinions but as helpless as ever to uncover the motivations of the powers that be. These gaps in knowledge have spawned no end of hypotheses and conspiracy theories, a phenomenon that will only increase as the country enters a particularly murky period,” the article said.

Despite the fact that what the paper regarded as “murky” then is different from the situation we find ourselves in today, the overall scene remains just as obscure.

The thousands of items of fake news that keep spreading from social media to traditional media and from traditional media back to social media while pausing to go back and forth in every street, square and house are negatively affecting society at large.

Research tells us that people tend to focus more on negative than positive gossip. According to an article entitled “The Power of Negative Gossip,” “hearing something negative about a person can influence our basic visual processing, causing us to choose to focus on that person over other possible people and objects… We might be able to correct something we did, or make up for it in some way, but the negative event will haunt us for far longer and will remain much more salient, something that’s especially true as our mistakes follow us in perpetuity in cyberspace.”

However, experiences gathered since the boom of social media tell us that censoring, attacking or discrediting accounts, Websites and other online activities rarely achieve their aims, even if these have to do with national security, the public good, or even combating terrorism.

This is especially true when such steps are taken by individual states and not by all.

This is why the recent parliamentary bill regarding popular social-media accounts publishing fake news cannot be the solution.

According to the new law, now awaiting President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s ratification, personal social-media accounts with more than 5,000 followers are considered as media outlets, and thus can be blocked or treated as outlets publishing fake news.

Dealing with fake news in the age of the Internet can only be done by more transparency, credibility and the constant flow and availability of information from genuine sources of information to the public and of course to the media. Self-correcting steps should also be taken.

Other, more long-term solutions range from improving, or rather totally restructuring, education, teaching the younger generations how and not what to think, how to check and double check, and why people should think independently and critically.

Last but not least, people’s minds and souls should be set free from those who have monopolised religion.

The writer is a journalist at Al-Hayat newspaper.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 July 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Trapped in a sea of rumours

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