Egyptian media outlets run a series of advertisements to campaign against social media rumours, corroborating parts of a speech made by the country’s president at a military academy graduation ceremony in Cairo on 22nd July 2018.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi stated that social media rumours had the potential to plunge a country into chaos. He further stated that regulatory bodies had observed that approximately 21,000 rumours had circulated within the country within a 3-months period.
As a result, TV stations such as Extra News ran adverts encouraging people to verify news from well-trusted sources before disseminating it. Local newspapers such as Al-Wafd Daily, Al-Ahram al Masai, and Al-Shorouk reiterated the presidents warning against destructive rumours.
As to whether these steps are a waste of resources or a good example for other countries to follow is a matter of opinion. Due to past and recent mishaps that have occurred because of media rumours, I believe it is a positive move by the Egyptian authorities that several countries should follow.
A few years ago, when social media services such as WhatsApp and YouTube were not in vogue, media channels such as radio and television were the most popular forms of news dissemination. Even then, certain dangerous rumours were peddled through these channels.
The Rwandan Genocide of 1994 demonstrates a clear example of how dangerous media rumours could change the fortunes of a country. Radio broadcasts played a significant role in inciting members of the Hutu ethnic group, to participate in the massacres of Tutsis; the country’s two main ethnic groups.
Ugandan radio stations such as Radio Rwanda and Radio Television Libre des Milles Collines (RTLM) transmitted hate propaganda to the illiterate masses.
For example, a broadcast by Radio Rwanda in March 1992 spread a malicious rumour that a certain human rights group had observed that there was an impending Tutsi attack on Hutu leaders in Bugesera District.
This false radio announcement was meant to encourage Hutus to take offensive measures against the Tutsis, and eventually served as a catalyst for the genocide.
Additionally, a series of broadcasts by RTLM in 1993 frequently referred to Tutsis as ‘inyenzi’ (cockroaches) and encouraged the Hutus to “crush the cockroaches”. RTLM was also instrumental in providing names and home addresses of specific individuals who should be killed.
Since radio and television have been around for some years, many countries have found ways to regulate content to avoid such mishaps. However, social media is steadily posing similar threats in recent times because countries cannot regulate it as easily as local newspapers, radio stations, or TV stations.
A recent example of the gruelling effects of a social media rumour occurred in India where 9 people were lynched over a 3-month period because of an edited video which was circulated on WhatsApp in 2018.
The original video showed two men on a motorcycle pulling up to a group of children, and one of them grabbed a child and they rode off. The pair returned with the child and held up a sign to explain the incident.
This video was basically a child safety film from Pakistan designed to create awareness. However, rumour mongers maliciously edited out the last segment of the video where the men returned with the child and added a message alerting the public about a group of kidnappers who had besieged the town.
Unfortunately, this WhatsApp rumour was given more authenticity when some local media channels began disseminating it and reiterating the caution in the video, thereby fuelling panic among the citizens.
Consequently, authorities in Tamil Nadu state began awareness drives to counter the rumours. Additionally, district officials in Kannur, in the southern state of Kerala, recently begun a 40-minute-long fake news classes in 150 of its 600 government schools.
As the Rwandan and Indian examples have shown, the life-changing effects of malicious rumours on social media demonstrate the need for other countries to emulate similar measures adopted by Egyptian media.