No fatwa to eat wife: How fake news mills are used to fan hatred for Muslims
They become staples as people share news that suits their beliefs and prejudices at the expense of others.
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Can you imagine that a husband is so suspicious about his wife having an illicit relationship with her 12-year-old cousin that he actually sticks her vagina with glue?
No doubt, the world is a weird place and anything is possible. In Robert Browning's famous poem Porphyria's Lover, the lover kills the beautiful Porphyria to "give herself to me forever...I am quite sure she felt no pain" and later fondles her corpse.
Common sense would otherwise make one doubt such news and force him/her to probe it further before believing the proverbial running-to-catch-the-crow-upon-hearing-the-crow-took-away-your-ears-without-straining-to-check-if-your-ears-are-in-the-right-place.
No such suspicion arises, however, when the weirdest news updates about Muslims or Arabs make their way into social media. Muslims, after all, are so barbaric, savage, misogynist. And Arab Muslims are the worst, they are apparently capable of anything under the sun.
A young woman (and many others) shared a news update on her timeline few days ago - about a jealous Qatari husband who used glue to stick the genitals of his wife when he was going on a business trip because he was suspicious that his wife was cheating on him since she had liked a picture of her 12-year-old cousin on Facebook:
The news source was a little-known blog called "Life in Saudi Arabia". Hence, very politely, I suggested to her that anything is possible in this world but the fact that it's a blog and not an authentic news website raises suspicion about its authenticity.
I said so as I had encountered the same news story two weeks ago on the known hoax news site "World news daily report". Among several other media platforms, the Indian Express web desk too busted this hoax news.
Within minutes, pat came the reply asking if I had bothered to click on the URL and read before commenting, adding that the story had the details. Some of her Facebook friends laughed off my comment with Facebook emojis.
The (over) confidence of the millennials puts even those like me, only few years older than them and a perennial rebel, to shame. But the young woman soon had change of heart and she deleted my comment and her comment as well. But the blog post link still remains on her wall as I finish writing this article a day and half later.
The same "World news daily report" had, a few weeks ago, written about a Saudi Prince Majed bin Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud losing $350 million and five of his wives in six hours at the casino.
When BJP leader Sambit Patra tweeted a fake news report on Twitter, it made headlines, but this hoax news from a known hoax site was tweeted by senior Congress leader and acclaimed author Shashi Tharoor on May 30, without raising eyebrows.
Many others and I immediately took to Twitter to point that this is ake news, but the tweet remained there for almost a day. It was only after a long post that I had written on Facebook that was also shared by the news-portal that Tharoor quietly deleted the tweet, without so much as apologising.
Shashi Tharoor's tweet.
To borrow from Tharoor himself, an "exasperating farrago of distortions, misrepresentations and outright lies" was promoted by him. That someone like Tharoor would believe such a hoax is troublesome.
But why blame the Congress leader alone when a leading Urdu newspaper of Kolkata, Akhbar Mashriq, whose editor is currently a Rajya Sabha MP, had made this news the lead story of its front page two days later on June 1:
Interestingly, only a day later, the same paper carried a short piece about how fake news about the Saudi prince is being spread on social media and by some newspapers. But they forgot to apologise for promoting the very hoax.
Days later, some Hindi newspapers and news portals including Zee News and Dainik Jagran also carried the "news", adding that the Saudi government is embarrassed because of the incident.
A similar fake news story about a Saudi cleric issuing a fatwa to make it permissible for a husband to eat his wife if nothing else is available should the husband be hungry similarly made its way from hoax sites to several main stream international media. It was reported by many media houses in the West and in India - with insight into the appalling condition of women in the kingdom.
In fact, the grand Mufti, the highest cleric - who is otherwise famous for issuing his outrageous dictates - clarified that he never issued the fatwa.
Certain stereotypes about Muslims or Arabs are so ingrained in larger media narratives that we don't even bother to verify the news or check its source. To non-Muslims, anything remotely connected to Islam or Muslims - be it the veil, Arabic/Urdu texts or long beards and skull caps - is enough to raise suspicion.
Islamophobia is prevalent at so many levels and it has so deeply affected the world that now many Muslims are caught in the trap. Oh! This is about the Shias, it must be true, many Sunnis would say; oh Wahabbis, they are barbaric, Sufi followers would say; Barelvis have gone astray, Salafis would say.
Salaifism promotes extremism many would say, typically making a sizeable number of Arabs and many in the Indian subcontinent natural suspects.
The Facebook post about the Qatari husband was, after all shared, by a young Muslim woman, who is quite active on social media, but what makes her trust this so blindly is worrying.
When it comes to Muslims in India, the perpetual distrust and suspicion about their loyalty to their motherland further aggravates the situation.
Thus, as if the negative portrayal of Muslims in the Indian media - mostly in context to terrorism, fatwa, talaq - were not enough, now "news" is being created through rumour mills.
From Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013 to almost every recent communal tension, the role of social media and WhatsApp groups has come under the lens as a medium to spread misinformation, hate speech, rumours and fake news.
As India was defeated in the ICC Champions Trophy by archrival Pakistan, rumours were spread on social media that celebratory firecrackers were burst in Muslim-dominated localities, although there is hardly any direct evidence to suggest it except rumours and reports of clashes in few places, including the Hooghly district in West Bengal and Jharkhand.
I live in one such Muslim pocket of Kidderpore in Kolkata and I did not hear a single cracker being burst on Sunday evening. My friends who live in few other such pockets too attested to my observation. In fact, few of my friends at AMU confirm how they got calls from several media asking about celebrations at the university. The next day, Amar Ujala reported that crackers were heard in localities near AMU. In another report, it used a photograph of post-victory revelry in Pakistan (Reuters) and passed it off as a celebration in Aligarh.
This is not a case of hoax, but a deliberate attempt by an established media house to play into the hands of the rightwing to exploit the hysteria surrounding hyper-nationalism.
Meanwhile, in Madhya Pradesh, sedition charges are filed against 15 Muslims on mere complaints by a Hindu neighbour.
The menace of fake news was recognised in the United States after last year's presidential elections, when, according to several experts, Donald Trump's campaign got a boost from such dubious news websites.
Busting fake news
In India, however, fake news has become a thriving industry in the past few years as several websites aligned to right-wing ideologies work towards spreading propaganda, supporting the Hindutva ideology and favouring the ruling dispensation.
One positive, however, is that some fake news busting sites too have come up in the recent years. 37 leading media in Europe, mainly from England and France, have come together to support the non-profit "fact-checking" coalition Cross Check.
In India, Alt News, co-founded by Pratik Sinha, has similarly busted fake propaganda of different sites, blogs and individuals, including Post Card, TrueIndology, Hindutva.info, etc. It also reported on how right wing trolls used multiple old videos of other celebrations to spread rumours of Muslims celebrating the victory of Pakistan when they could not find real videos.
Websites like Check4spam.com, SM Hoax Slayer, among others are also trying to bust fake news breaks. Some TV channels too have started programmes like Viral Video Ka Sach.
But there has been no concerted and united effort from mainstream media in the country to avoid them, perhaps because it suits the narrative of vilifying certain groups.
In Akira Kurosawa's classic Rashomon (1950), the commoner quips: "I don't care if it's a lie, as long as it's entertaining."
In the age of social media, rumours and false news have become staples as people share news that suits their beliefs and prejudices at the expense of "others". Muslims continue to be projected in crass ways directly or indirectly (in the name of Arabs), perpetuating negative imageries.