What makes fake news go viral in Oman?

13 Sep 2018
POSTED BY Alvin Thomas

Fake news is a global phenomenon – and it’s one that oman isn’t immune from. As more false information is fed to the masses online daily, we analyse the social media fallout that threatens real journalism in the Sultanate. Team Y reports on the far-reaching impact on this problem that can disrupt our lives.

News garnished with a touch of sugar, spice, and everything nice. Everything but the truth. That’s what makes up the “fake news” that currently besieges our newsfeeds.

Fake currency, fake food products, fake apparel; and up to a point, fake photos – we’re hardwired to see right through it all. A little vigilance is all it takes to realise that you’re buying into a bogus sham. However, when it comes to fake news, surprisingly, many people don’t think twice – and it’s jeopardising the future of journalism.

Propagating news on social media after diligent research is one thing but it gets sketchy when people are out there publishing unverified content – and even worse: fake news.

Oman is no stranger to such rumours and fake news, either. In fact, over the course of the year, several fake news stories have been floating around – some quirky but others with serious consequences.

One example was in July this year when, amidst all the FIFA World Cup fervour, news was spread through social media channels such as Facebook and WhatsApp that a decision was taken by the government that Omani men would have to take two wives in a bid to boost the population.

As silly as it sounds, several fell victims to the trap – and it became the talk of the country, and predictably, across the GCC region.

The rumour read: “Due to the lack of population growth, the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs has decided that every man must marry at least two women and the state will support them financially.

“A woman who tries to stop her husband from getting married again will face a penalty set by the ‘Department of Women Preaching and Guidance’ in the Ministry.”

Two wives, it seemed, was going to be the norm in Oman, and those sharing the news were also backed by official documents – ones that were signed and stamped by ministries.

Nadir al Balushi*, a socialite and budding entrepreneur in the Sultanate says he was “deeply disturbed” to see such a law
being passed.

“I was shocked to see this being passed around on WhatsApp. I initially raised my doubts about this story but there was an official document circulated along with the news, too.

A screenshot of the fabricated document stating that Omani men were mandated to take two wives.

“That’s when you begin believing the story.

“I’m happily married, and cannot think of leaving my wife. But, what hurt me was to see that my sister’s husband came home intoxicated and with this piece of news, and began causing a scene at home – threatening to leave her if she didn’t serve him as a ‘better wife’.

“This caused an uproar at home, and they spent the week away from each other.”

What the people – including Nadir and his family – didn’t know, however, was how the document was doctored to cause an unwarranted confusion among the populace of the country, and possibly in a bid to upset women.

Nadir tells us that the news took a good four days to gain traction on social media before the government could act on it.

In a statement to the public, the Ministry said: “With regards to the rumour being circulated, the Ministry would like to point out that this decision has not been issued by the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs and legal action will be taken against [the person who started] the rumour.”

But Nadir believes the damage had already been done.

“By the time the news was debunked, people were already coaxed into thinking that this was real news. Though, many people like us were still sceptical about it, a lot of young people were pulled into it.

“It even went trending on Twitter,” he tells us, before adding that the incident was strong enough to cause a rift between his family and his brother-in-law.

Thankfully for Nadir’s family, things didn’t end badly – but if it hadn’t been caught at the right time, it would have most likely have caused a national furore.

Salma al Farsi, the chief accountant of a leading bank, tells Y that it isn’t the first time that such fake news is being propagated in Oman.

She says: “I burst out laughing and nearly fell out of my chair at work when I heard about the two-wives rule.

“To be honest, it had the workings of a frustrated man written all over it. I wasn’t having any of it. As a matter of fact, we [Salma’s gang of friends] discussed this over coffee that weekend, and we remember chuckling about it.”

The 28-year-old believes Oman is tailor-made for those seeking to create a degree of misunderstanding among the public.

While Salma poses some valid points, the origin of the term ‘fake news’ can be traced back to the early days of yellow journalism and propaganda in the 1890s that consisted of the deliberate hoaxes or disinformation spread via traditional print and broadcast media.

What is ‘Fake News’?

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) defines fake news as false information distributed deliberately, usually for political or commercial purposes. But the term is a bit more complex than that.

As per the revealing of Cosmopolitan Civil Societies: An Interdisciplinary Journal published in 2017, fake news can be written and published with the intent of misleading the readers or damaging an agency, entity, or person, and/or gain financially or politically, often using often using sensationalist, dishonest, or outright fabricated headlines to increase readership, online sharing, and Internet click revenue.

Also Read: Top tips to spot fake news in Oman

But fake news can also be set up for humour or to spread confusion.

Today, all of this extends to social media as well – and it can then be misinterpreted and covered by mainstream media sources.

Fake news in Oman

For instance, in 2016, a news agency in Oman confirmed that the no-objection certificate (NOC) that governs expats in the country would be removed by November 2016, thereby allowing them to shift jobs without the need for a permit from their employer.

This led to a mass celebration among the expat communities in the Sultanate – but the date came and went, and the NOC rule continues to exist. To add to their woes, a six-month ban was placed on expats in certain sectors.

“This was a cruel joke,” says Stanley*, an expat working in the petroleum industry in Oman.

“We had expected the law to be removed based on the report published by [name of media house withheld], and had already begun planning our next move. I even interviewed with an employer, and all they required was for me to get the release (NOC).

“Though, when nothing changed, we realised that everything said in the media was merely for the added clicks – clickbait, as they call it today.

“What’s funny is that it had us all – the two million-odd expats – talking about it. And it’s exactly what we wanted
to hear.”

The official line

Other fake news that rattled the residents of the country emanate from the depths of social media – particularly WhatsApp and Facebook. The reason for this, according to an official at the Royal Oman Police (ROP) who wishes to remain unnamed, is because of “gullible people who believe everything that is published online”.

He clarifies: “While I’m not challenging the people who share information online, I would like to request everyone to cross-check what they share publicly.

“Ask questions. Think whether the news is plausible. Type it into Google before and check if it’s valid before you share it online. What a lot of people don’t realise is that social media is like a giant gathering, and everybody is connected to each other.

“So, when you share information on such a public sphere, it’s generally believed to be true. This is because those who are receiving such information from you have a basic level of trust in your judgement – therefore, they’ll then take it upon themselves to share the news further.

“Some of the stories that have gone viral in Oman are actually amusing. For instance, we had reports that there were new number plates being issued for cars in the country, and that cat meat was being sold in restaurants. Despite all that, the most quirky one has to be the one in which Omanis were mandated to marry two women.

“What’s upsetting is that a lot of people were actually talking about it and believed it. It went viral in the span of a few days, and caused several fights among families.

“This is the type of vile nature that fake news here takes,” he adds, before pointing out another news item that didn’t gain much traction here in the Muscat governorate.

As it turns out, fake news can take real life-altering turns that can change the course of one’s life or the country’s future.

“In May, 2018, just before the Cyclone Mekunu made landfall in Salalah, a fake account of the meteorological department on Twitter, panicked the public by stating that the cyclone had intensified into Category 2,” our official says.

Following this, a warning was sent across to the residents of the Sultanate by the Public Prosecution, stating that indulging in such acts of sending or re-sending false news or rumours will land the perpetrators in jail for a minimum period of three years and also result in a fine of RO3,000.

This falls in line with the Article 61 of the Omani Criminal Law that dictates against using telecommunication devices or other means (social media platforms, broadcast media, and print media) to propagate incorrect messages, or messages that haven’t been verified by the regulatory authorities.

And why not? Our source at the ROP reveals that on average one fake story goes round on the Internet every three days in the Sultanate. Thankfully, much of these don’t gain the traction required to go viral and simply dissipate into
thin air.

For instance, last week [September 3rd, 2018], we received information from an anonymous source that several ATM machines in Oman were rigged to copy the users’ card data. However, it didn’t go viral, and seems to have failed to result in any worry among the people residing here.

Shaji, an IT manager working with a leading bank in Oman, assures us that it was indeed a hoax, and that residents needn’t worry about messages concerning the safety of bankers.

“The ATM machines of today are incredibly intricate, and cannot be rigged easily. Moreover, the article says that this is happening only in malls. That’s impossible, as there are cameras everywhere – be it at malls or at vestibules – and we’d know from the tapes if someone had attached a phishing device to our machine,” he explains.

Fake news to create awareness?

To get to grips with what motivates individuals to share unverified news from unreliable sources, we get in touch with an Omani man who calls himself “Abdul” (who refuses to disclose his original name during the interview), and runs a WhatsApp group called ‘Oman Today’.

During our investigation, several sources reveal that it is indeed him who has been sharing these hoaxes, arguably alongside several valid news stories as well, with the 256 unsuspecting group members.

One of his most notorious shares was the story of a seven-year-old girl kidnapped and murdered in Oman, and the sale of plastic rice in hypermarkets – both fake stories that have been debunked by the ministries and the ROP.

Abdul tells Y: “My intention is not to share wrong stories, but rather share information that comes my way. I do not like to be questioned about it, and anyone who wants to leave the group can leave.

Our questions clearly upset Abdul. His tone soon changes, as he says: “I don’t like being questioned, and I’m not doing this for the money. Media like you (Y Magazine) have the resources to verify news, but that’s not the case for the common man.

“We’re out here living life, and if we see something that can help one another, we will do it.

“The story of a girl kidnapped and murdered originally came from Facebook, and I simply shared it with my group of WhatsApp. They then went on to share it among their peers.”

Be that as it may, his share – as small as it may seem in the course of things – resulted in the GCC media picking up on the news.

It took the ROP quite a lot of damage control to resolve the misperceptions among the residents. Questions were raised over ROP hotlines, and several parents would enquire whether the “murderer” was caught and if it was indeed safe for “children to play outside”.

But on May 14, 2017 – two days since the release of the unsettling news – the ROP came forward to declare it a “rumour”.

The statement read: “All residents should refrain from spreading rumours on social media networks and only make use official sources for news.

“There are those who seek to spread rumours, and sow discord in society. Be a constructive tool in the community and don’t be a deterrent. You should not be a participant in the broadcast of rumours.”

WhatsApp as it turns out, can potentially have a dark side that is fuelled by a lack of fair, factual, and well-researched reporting. Yet, to a handful of its members, these stories seem accurate.

The victims of social media fame

Albeit, if you’re thinking that you’re invincible, then think again. Because just like fake news, there lies a greater worry for those connected through social media: falling prey to fake accounts of companies, celebrities, ministers, and other high-profile individuals.

This first came to light in 2016 when imposters created fake accounts of the minister of education, H E Dr. Madeeha bint Ahmed bin Nassir al Shaibaniyah, which was then used to propagate fake news.

Several innocent students took to following her page, but it wasn’t long before the sham was brought to light. The account has since been removed.

A year later, it was Oman Air that was found taking action against an imposter posing as the national airline. Details of the case weren’t revealed, but it is said that after gaining a substantial number of followers using the handle ‘@omanairline’, numerous videos were published discrediting the airline.

This profile, too, has since been deleted. It is not known if the “frauds” were punished for posing and defaming the brand.

Nevertheless, as more people adopt social media to their daily lives, the more the chances of falling prey to such imposters. As a matter of fact, simply typing in the names of several high-profile individuals like Sayyida Basma al Said – the founder of Whispers of Serenity Clinic in Oman, Ali al Habsi – Omani goalkeeper, and Ahmad al Harthy – Omani racing driver, all have fake profiles; some with as many as 5,000 followers (!)

Though harmless in nature, several of these profiles (among several others) have been known to send back private messages to people posing as the individual.

All our efforts to connect with the fake profiles of Sayyida Basma and Ahmad al Harthy prove futile. However, one of Ali’s profiles (since deleted) responds to us when we reach out asking for rate cards to pose in a television advertisement.

The imposter writes: “Yes, I am Ali’s manager. I will send you [the rate card], but you must transfer the amount to us first. Only then he will (sic.) come for the ad shoot.

Our conversation lasts another 15 minutes as we try to get him to reveal his identity. But, soon, he realises that he’s being set up and leaves.

A few minutes later, he and the 4,264 followers disappear from the face of Instagram.

Social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr have a tight set of rules against the propagation of fake news, but sadly, they cannot monitor or alter the right and freedom of speech of an individual.

Who believes in fake news?

This means anyone can be exposed to fake news anywhere – and it’s up to you to determine whether the news is real or fabricated.

But according to Maher al Zadjali, a clinical psychologist based in Muscat, the failure to be able to determine real news from fake comes from the circumstances under which a child was brought up.

“Everything from your education, to religious, and political faith, to your character can determine how you perceive fake news.

“While the literacy rate in Oman stands at about 94 per cent, we must also understand that not a lot of emphasis is given on problem-solving and not many have the opportunity to interact with peers that are non-Omanis.

“So, when they eventually come out into the world, they’re left with only knowledge they’ve received from book-reading, and a circle of friends that is limited to their own nationalities.

“That said, they say that being open-minded is one of the greatest gifts one can receive – and it goes to show.

“Today, if people are seeing through fabricated news, then they know that there’s an off chance that the story could go either way. But if you’re dogmatic and a bit rigid in your thinking, you’re more likely to believe fake news. It’s a fact.

“Open-mindedness comes hand-in-hand with analytical thinking, and it involves the cerebrum part of your brain that is associated with thinking, learning, and other emotions.

“So, there’s a higher chance that you’ll think and reason with yourself over the story that you’ve just seen. But, despite that, there’s another concern that can dictate what a person believes and doesn’t: perceived accuracy.

“Take for example a child that’s just entering school. They will more likely be able to follow patterns, such as following a set pattern during dance or repeating the lines of a poem, if their peers are also involved in it.

“This is exactly what we can apply in our daily lives. So, if you’ve just seen a news story that has been shared by multiple people you know and respect, you’re more inclined to believe that story.”

How to tackle this phenomenon?

But, Oman isn’t the only country affected by fake news.

India has been in a constant battle – and one that experts say it is losing – against the propagation of fake news. In fact, false news has led to violence and murder in the country in the past.

To tackle this, the authorities from the district of Kannur in Kerala had organised 40-minute-long classes to identify fake news from real ones, in 150 schools.

Furthermore, all countries across the world are grappling with how to deal with the spreading harmful and false information. For instance, in 2017 Germany began fining social media platforms that didn’t remove hate speech.

Maher explains: “Social media is an amazing tool and it has opened up a whole new world to people – it really is uncanny.

“Today people are more connected about each other than they ever were before. But, in hindsight, that only means people are spreading information faster than ever. This brings us to the question: have we really grown as a species and travelled ahead in time, or have we just signed up to fall prey at the hands of our own kind?”

“Trust me, you know the answer. Fact or fiction – that’s what’ll decide our fate.”

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