Updated: Oct 4
The spread of fake news is now such the world over that even law makers and opinion shapers are falling prey to it and quoting it across media platforms. Social Media has of course compounded the problem. The question that arises: is fake news a recent phenomenon? No, but social media, online news portals and mobiles have contributed in huge measure to its rise and its reach.
We have seen the impact of fake news in misleading people, spreading false propaganda or maligning people and communities. In India, fake news based on fabricated and non-existing facts especially on social media has been instrumental in instigating communal violence. Moreover, the rise in the volume of fake news aimed at hate mongering in the last few years has increased the probability of creating communal hatred and instigating violence.
A glaring example of this dangerous trend has been detailed in a recent report published by thedisinfolab.org. The report details on how the Muslim Brotherhood launched a campaign targeting India’s economic interests. According to this report titled Muslim BrotherHood Arrives In India, the #BoycottIndianProducts hashtag that was being shared on Twitter in the last few days, was part of this campaign against India.
The #BoycottIndianProducts campaign on social media was started after a recent eviction drive against encroachers in Assam which had turned violent after some encroachers attacked the police. Right after, social media accounts mostly from Pakistan and middle eastern countries including Turkey, Egypt and Iraq had launched the campaign to boycott products made in India.
According to DisinfoLab, ‘news articles’ were also published that promoted this anti-India trend by several media houses connected to Muslim Brotherhood, including Al-Jazeera. Most of the users used the Arabic hashtag #مقاطعة_المنتجات_الهندية , but some also used the English version #BoycottIndianProducts. There was another tag saying #IndiaIsKillingMuslims, and an unusually large number of people from the Islamic countries had posted the tags which essentially means it was a deliberate and malicious campaign.
According to DisinfoLab, the Assam incident was a mere excuse to run the campaign, as the perpetrators were already ready with the plan, waiting for a trigger. Both anonymous Twitter account and verified handles of well-known people from Islamic countries had posted the hashtags calling for boycott of Indian products.
It’s interesting to not that even though the campaign targeted India, the report states it also targeted Saudi Arabia and UAE, two middle eastern countries with close ties with India. The report by DisinfoLab states that most of the prominent handles promoting this campaign were related to the Muslim Brotherhood (al-Ikhwān al-Muslimūn). Some of the Muslim Brotherhood ‘influencers’ who led this include:
Mohamed Al Sagheer, Member of Board of Trustees of International Union of Muslim Scholars, an organization of Muslim Islamic theologians and known as the “supreme authority of the Muslim Brotherhood.” Earlier he had appeared on Al Jazeera calling for the boycott of French products.
Sami Kamal El Din, Egyptian Journalist based in Istanbul, who has been listed as a terrorist twice by the Egyptian govt, and an expert in propaganda. He had impersonated an Egyptian intelligence official to call several Egyptian celebrities asking them to support the US move to US mission in Israel to Jerusalem, the video of which was ‘leaked’ and the story was published in New York Times. His YouTune channel was deleted on request of Egypt for spreading fake news.
Ahmad Muaffaq Zeidan, journalist who mainly covers Taliban and Al Qaeda. He has put on watch list by National Security Agency (NSA) of the United States for suspected links with Al-Qaeda and Muslim Brotherhood.
Yasser Abu Hilalah, former Managing Director of Al Jazeera Arabic News, who is known to have ties with the officials of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and even shared platforms with them. Disinfolab says that Hilalah amplified the campaign targeting India and had retweeted several media articles which had highlighted the campaign.
Omar Abdulaziz, activist who is sympathizer of several terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq, especially Daesh (ISIS).
The campaign run by the Islamists was covered by many media houses, mostly in Arabic, and Dsinfolab says that the line between ‘report’ and ‘promotion’ was blurred in those reports. These reports presented the boycott campaign as a genuine reaction to ‘atrocities to Muslims in India’, not giving real details of the Assam incident, and not disclosing the nature of people behind the campaign. The media reports didn’t mention that most people posting the hashtags were from Egypt, Turkey and Qatar and several of them were linked with Muslim Brotherhood, and several videos and images posted by them were from unrelated incidents, which are already debunked by reputed fact-checkers in India.
The most prominent media house that published reports on the campaign, almost promoting them, was Al Jazeera. All the major portals of the media house promoted the campaign by tweeting from its various handles like Al Jazeera Global, Arabic, Kuwait, Turkey, Egypt etc.
It is notable that the United States has already put many of these journalists on their terrorism watch list. In fact, Ahmad Muaffaq Zaidan, the Islamabad bureau chief for Al Jazeera, was listed as a member of al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood by the NSA.
Other media houses that promoted the anti-India campaign included the Turkish state-owned news channel TRT World. Taking this a step further, TRT World had launched a promotion of the news article through TRT Arabia, which ran a Facebook Ad. This media house has a history of running anti-India fake news.
Some other media houses which actively pushed the campaign included Rassd News Network (RNN) from Egypt, Arabi21 from Egypt funded by Qatar, Al-Araby News from UK funded by Qatar, US-based Arab-American newspaper Watan Serb etc.
As a result several social media handles in India also ended up sharing this Fake News. There were many old images and videos that were circulated as part of this campaign which showed Muslims being attacked by Hindus, all of which were untrue. Expectedly so, several social media accounts from Pakistan were aggressively pushing this campaign as well.
The DisinfoLab report further analyses how the boycott Indian product campaign was pushed by various Twitter handles, and how they helped increase the reach of the same. The report says that such campaigns are set to increase in the coming months. It also states that Twitter has repeatedly failed to apply even most basic filtering and monitoring to combat fake news and info-war.
Not just India, but the world just come together to fight this scourge of Fake News. Such campaigns will increase and we must put in place mechanisms to ensure that these nefarious designs are nipped in the bud. Neutral Fact checkers must be encouraged and promoted and their analysis must be disseminated aggressively. Let’s all come together and fight this. In this new age war online, we can and we will prevail!
(Rishi Suri is the editor at The Daily Milap, India's oldest and largest circulated Urdu newspaper and has formerly served as the media consultant to the Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister).