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The manufacturing of rumours and the role of mainstream media

Nov 07,2018 - Last updated at Nov 07,2018

Sometimes it is interesting to watch how rumours are manufactured and spread and to see rumour-mongers at work. It is more amusing to see the right people rise up to the challenge and smash these rumours before they cause the intended damage, especially in the relationship between the state and the public.  

One recent example illustrates the craft of manufacturing a damaging rumour. A sound clip was circulated over social media and as a WhatsApp message included a conversation between Interior Minister Samir Mubaidin and the mayor of a Madaba municipality. It was apparent that the minister was, as a private citizen, mediating in a dispute between the mayor and a third party. The conversation does not reveal details, but in the outcome, the angry mayor rejected the mediation and ended the call abruptly.  

So far, this is a normal situation, regardless of why the phone call was recorded in the first place and why it went public. 

Obviously, someone jumped at the opportunity. Taking advantage of the lack of details in the conversation between the official and the mayor, except the name and title of Mubaidin, he, she or they coupled the sound clip with a video showing an attack on a traffic officer in Aqaba and a one-line text claiming falsely that the attacker was the son of the minister, who was trying to pressure the father to drop charges. 

The rumour was buried in no time when the mayor posted an apology to Mubaidin on his Facebook page. The apology was reported by a daily and, to my knowledge, was not shared on WhatsApp, simply because it had lost its appeal to the masses.

Studies show that mainstream media have lost ground to social media, especially fake news and sensational rendering of events by amateurs or professional rumour makers. However, few would disagree that deep inside, individuals tend to believe news if it is reported by a respected newspaper, a TV channel or a radio station. Perhaps official state media stand somewhere in between, especially after a series of setbacks witnessed by social media companies, such as Facebook, which was reportedly used by Russia's electronic army to influence the 2016 US presidential elections. In the UK, public trust in social media platforms fell four points year-on-year, according to a study. Locally, outright lies spread through the same platforms have been gnawing at the credibility of these outlets. The example set above is one of many. Another is the claim that the Water Ministry opened the gates of Zarqa-Maeen Dam and caused flashfloods that swept away schoolchildren and others in one of the most tragic incidents in Jordan's history last month.   

Empowering mainstream media and encouraging opinion leaders to counter rumours is the key and fastest way to extinguish fake news and its impact on the public opinion. Toughening the Cybercrimes Law might be helpful, but it gives a bad name to a country that is seen as an oasis of respect for human rights and expression of opinion, in a region where authoritarianism remains the top dog.

The country's newspapers and other mainstream media outlets are staffed with experienced journalists who should be further trained on new media, including video editing and photography, and then hired to generate content serving national causes, such as fighting extremism, promoting tourism and other undertakings. In return, the government can allocate part of the funding earmarked for these projects to support the media. Conflict of interest is irrelevant here and the experience has proved a success in other countries, killing several birds with one stone.


The writer is the deputy chief editor of The Jordan Times

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