Fake news, rumours, propaganda: Malevolence on the rise

Published : Tuesday, 21 August, 2018 at 12:00 AM

Fake news, a form of propaganda and rumour has become a dangerous phenomenon in today’s world with creation of thousands of online news sources and social media. Technology is considered to be a blessing for the improvements of our lives. But issues like fake news are placing us against the worldwide evolution of technologies as people are being victimized by the troublemakers around the globe. Several such problems were encountered throughout Bangladesh in recent times which made our government to look for strong strategies to fight this problem. The root of this problem actually lies in our readiness to believe and act on such news ignorantly and despite several efforts it remains a growing concern.
Fake news can come in three forms — completely false information, photos or videos purposefully created and spread to confuse or misinform people, some old information, photos or videos manipulated to deceive as shared as new and some sort of satire or parody which means no harm but can fool people easily.

All these things are usually propagated to ignite the emotion of the people to achieve some political, economical or personal agenda. The generators of these fake news are pleasantly benefitted financially as studies have proved that fake posts are shared and hit in a much larger number than true ones. Alarmingly, even though the users can identify a post to be a fake one, they usually hit it, read it and share it.

Recent protests on quota reforms and road safety assurance has generated multiple fake news and posts. Social media played a great role in these protests and took an ugly form at the later part due to utmost misuse of the online platforms. During the quota reform protests, Dr Imran H Sarker, the founder leader of the Gonojagoron Mancha posted false news about killing of a protesting student. His post ignited the protesters and led towards brutal attacks on the VC’s house.

Several other fake news like; attack on female students, arrests of protest-leaders flooded the social media and online news platforms. Many were presented in a manner which was hard to disbelieve. Many were not trustworthy but yet ignited emotions of the people to a great extent as several groups tried to claim political benefits.

During the protest of the students on road safety assurance also, social media played a great role. We have seen several edited photos with students holding banners with unutterable words intended towards the police and the government. Though unbelievable, these posts were shared million times proving our ignorance. At the later part of the protest, false news of torturing students and raping female students at a ruling party office was spread through video posts.

Video of one female student and a prominent actress begging for help to rescue the students from that office went viral in Facebook  leading towards students’ attack on the party office though the news was completely false. But many believed it and fierce emotion ignited among the protesters and their supporters. These were all conspiracies to turn the peaceful protest into a violent one.

Communal attacks based on such fake posts have almost become a common issue in Bangladesh. The first of this kind of attack was launched on the local Buddhist community in Ramu, Cox’s bazaar on September 29, 2012, instigated by tagging of an image violation of the Quran on Facebook timeline of a fake ID under a Buddhist name. Attackers set ablaze houses and demolished temples and monasteries of Buddhist community providing a red signal to the existing communal harmony in Bangladesh.

On October 30, 2016 at least 15 Hindu temples in Brahmanbaria’s Nasirnagar were vandalized by a group of 150 to 200 hooligans, who also targeted hundreds of houses in the local Hindu community over a Facebook  post by a local fisherman named Roshraj Das demeaning Islam through a photo shopped image of the Hindu lord Shiva sitting on the Muslim holy place Kaaba. Before the violent demonstrations, police had already arrested Das, who denied the allegations against him, saying his Facebook account was hacked. The content was originally posted by ‘Noyon Chatterje’, a Facebook profile run by Chhatra Shibir activists to instigate hatred against Hindus.

On November 10, 2017, attackers set on fire several houses and looted the valuables including cash, ornaments of Hindus in Rangpur, alleging a Hindu man Titu Roy posting a status on Facebook  defaming Islam though he was not living in the area for several years and did not even know how to read and write. Similar incidents were also recorded at Comilla in 2014 and Pabna in 2013.

In March, 2013, a rumour was spread nationwide about image of convicted war criminal and Jamaat-e-Islami leader Delwar Hossain Sayeedi to be seen on the moon. That rumour instigated people of Bogra to attack the local police station and 14 were killed and many injured. This was actually propaganda of the Jamaat Shibir activists who used rumour as a weapon.

Blackmailing or harassing people through spreading of false news is another great problem. Many citizens’ honour was destroyed through such acts and women are the primary victims of such acts. The sensationalism of such false news actually contributes in destroying someone’s image and it is a great crime from any context. Hence Bangladesh is going through several ill effects of fake news which are actually part of some sort of political propaganda. It has turned into a great headache for us in the recent times. Fake news has become a global problem and there are thousands of such examples. 

In August, 2017 a devastating hurricane named Irma hit the USA. Alex Jones of American website InfoWars declared it to be a category six hurricane broadcasted to over 750,000 followers on Facebook though category six hurricanes do not exist. It was complete fake news. On March 22, 2017, after six people were killed and 50 injured in a terror attack in London, a picture of a woman wearing a hijab and talking on the phone on Westminster Bridge, the site of the attack was circulated as thousands claimed the woman, as a Muslim, was indifferent to the suffering of victims around her. Later that woman released a statement explaining how devastated she was by witnessing the aftermath of a dreadful terror attack. The account, @SouthLoneStar, which first tweeted that image, was later suspended by Twitter in November after being identified as a Russian bot.

Famous Pizzagate conspiracy theory during the 2016 United States presidential election cycle involved John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager as his personal email account was hacked and his emails were subsequently made public by WikiLeaks. Later it falsely claimed that the emails contained coded messages referring to human trafficking and connecting several US restaurants and Democratic Party officials with an alleged child-sex ring involving the Washington DC restaurant Comet Ping Pong.

This led a man from North Carolina travelling to Comet Ping Pong to investigate the conspiracy during which he fired a rifle inside the restaurant. In addition, the restaurant owner and staff received death threats. That man believed that Hillary Clinton led a child-trafficking racket from Comet Ping Pong. This fake news was spread only to gain political advantages. 
In Japan, false news and rumours on the face of the earthquakes has several times resulted in racist disgraceful acts, especially in Osaka. The 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, which flattened much of Tokyo and surrounding areas, triggered mass killings of Koreans and Chinese by Japanese citizens and law-enforcement officers who believed false rumours. There was no internet then but such horrendous acts took place. This type of incidents repeated multiple times through widespread use of internet and social media during the last three decades.

The last US general election had witnessed several use of fake news like the Cambridge Analytica scandal which developed tactics to discover what issues concern voters the most. After having found the vulnerability, it then disseminated fake news to targeted voters to bring results in favor of its clients. The firm perfected its method by analyzing millions of Facebook users’ data without taking their consent.

It is evident that, fake news is a problem throughout the world more than ever with great use of internet, online news sites and social media. But there are some ways to identify fake news like; not trusting any news not posted by any prominent media house, checking the creation date of a social media profile which exposes its purpose with an ongoing event, checking the previous posts of a fake news publisher as that provides an idea of his agenda and most importantly, using our sense before sharing a news considering its influences. We must also protect a citizen’s honour by not spreading a negative post against him.

We can fight the phenomenon of fake news, rumour and propaganda if we use our judgment and ethics. Lack of proper education along with morally weak educated group is making us victims of such acts repeatedly. The law enforcers are trying to control this problem, though finding a few will not help much. Our people should be made aware and the elders of every family must make an attempt to shape up the morality of their family members. It is not a legal fight rather a social one and we must overcome this problem to avoid severe negative consequences in the future.

The writer is Chief Editor at Mohammadi News Agency (MNA), Editor at Kishore Bangla and Vice-Chairman, Democracy Research Center (DRC)

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