It used to be known as propaganda when adversary governments concocted bizarre stories to further their agendas. Tabloid journalism is a lighter version of the same; it goes after overblown gossip and bogus rumours.
Now, in the age of social media, the words “disinformation,” “yellow journalism” or better yet “fake news” have come to life. Hoax stories are created to deceive and intended to mislead, and in the process influence millions.
Grabby headlines, exaggerated and embellished information, and disregard for the truth construe fake news. According to the pundits, on one front, fake news increases readership as it sees higher sharing on Facebook and other social media sites than credible news. On another, it generates revenue through the advertisements it posts.
However, there is more to fake news than meets the eye.
Fake news is manipulative. It instils suspicion and doubt and prompts panic while steering simplistic minds far from the truth.
Today, a murky line exists between fair and square information and deliberately misleading information. This is why we, as receivers of information, must learn to decipher truth from fiction.
First, there are those who create fake news for the mere fun of it, sometimes as a prank or a hoax. Tweets and headlines such as “Kate Middleton and Prince William named Queen and King,” “North Korea experiments on humans,” “Obama birth secrets revealed,” or “Rat Meat Sold as Chicken Wings?” are hoax stories that are neither here nor there and discredited straightaway.
To the chagrin of many, satire, and what is meant as a joke, fools some into believing it is the truth. With a solemn deadpan attitude, the storyteller fools the receiver into believing that the story is bonafide when it can hardly be so. The problem is that these simplistic folks pass on the information as though it was for real.
In The Onion, a satirical digital publication of wide circulation, humour often depends on presenting “mundane, everyday events as newsworthy, surreal, or alarming.” Examples are “Trump Orders All Flags To Half-Staff In Honor Of American Killed On Episode Of ‘Blue Bloods’,” or "Scientists Confident Artificially Intelligent Machines Can Be Programmed To Be Lenient Slave Masters.”
If well-crafted, even credible news outlets fall for it. Stephen Harper, then prime minister of Canada, was rushed to hospital after he choked on a piece of hash brown while having breakfast with his children. His wife called 911, but his bodyguards thankfully were there to perform first aid. True? Absolutely not; it is a hoax in its entirety — a fictitious story from a highly imaginative prankster. And Canada’s CBC picked up the story and went with it as well. Naïve readers and viewers, especially when Canada’s CBC validated the story, accepted the story without hesitation.
Other fake news, though, is deliberately malice intended to upset the norm. States pursue fake news to promote their own agendas. State-funded sites and networks do the same. Individuals, anonymous and identified, via warped sites, defame and discredit rivals.
Many believe that fake news influenced the outcome of the American 2016 presidential election. As Business Insider relays, some of these fake stories were seen by over 2.2 million people, often relying on fictional content and made up allegations.
No doubt, the same pattern occurs in standard and social media on Egypt.
The headline to Reuters’ latest article on Egypt reads, “Qatar turns down new LNG deals with Egypt: traders.” Deliberately misleading, the article aims at making Egyptians fret.
When a tweet by an acclaimed personality reads, “Beaches are packed in Alexandria, but entrance fee is 40 pounds,” it is soon retweeted, placed on Facebook walls, and forwarded and reposted.
This while, on average, entrance to beaches in Alexandria cost between five to seven pounds with very few at 15 pounds and some totally free. Even if a single beach costs 40 pounds, the tweet generalises leaving the reader under the assumption that all beaches are that heftily priced, deliberately inciting readers.
In a short but easily identified piece of fake news, a digital newspaper’s headline reads, “El-Sisi surprises everyone and wanders secretly around Alexandria in his car.” The article alleges imminent changes as El-Sisi was “disappointed” by what has become of Alexandria.
If “secretly,” how did the reporter know? And did President El-Sisi inform him of his disappointment? The aim is clear: to gain readership while causing disturbance.
As a single example of Al-Jazeera’s manipulative journalism, it published a story on Egyptians from Sinai fleeing into Gaza because their homes in Northern Sinai were destroyed, “Egyptians in Gaza: we escaped certain death,” citing them as in the hundreds and subsisting on handouts.
I very much doubt these numbers are true, I doubt these are Egyptians from the start, and I’m certain that those who headed to Gaza had teamed up with the terrorists in Sinai and were worried that they would be implicated. Unquestionably had these folks been clear of any incrimination, they would’ve headed elsewhere in Egypt, got compensated and housed as thousands others were.
But Al-Jazeera gains from spreading such fake news. It is usually picked up by international publications, which enjoy defaming the Egyptian army while condemning its efforts to clean up northern Sinai of terrorists. And isn’t that pleasing for Al-Jazeera?
Can we differentiate between fake and true news? Can we avoid falling victims to hoax news that plants confusion?
To do that we must become sceptical readers and viewers; we have to question the authenticity of every word, photo, and footage unless it is validated, is from an extremely reliable source, cited in a credible source, or, preferably, appearing in more than one credible source.
Even this action is not enough. We must reach a higher level of scepticism or else we will continue to be deceived. I suggest we doubt everything said, realise that most of what is reported is suspiciously incorrect or is subjected to non-objective distortion. We must pause and ponder before we repost, filter the acceptable from the unacceptable, and weed out fictitious hearsay. We must ask ourselves if the reported story can be true and if it is rational or bizarre.
I suggest we become stringent disbelievers before we become promoters of false information.
The writer is an academic, political analyst, and author of Cairo Rewind: the First Two Years of Egypt's Revolution, 2011-2013.