The potential of fake news to cause harm to individuals, societies and governments is extremely alarming. When falsehood becomes too prevalent, it ignites skepticism in people, making them hard to believe in the information that is real and authentic. The false information and rumors about Novel Corona virus have gone into hyper-drive across online platforms, stokes waves of Sino phobia, blaming the outbreak on false claims that the Chinese have a regular habit of eating bats, snakes and other wild animals. In a tweet widely circulated, someone said that Koontz had predicted the corona virus outbreak based on a screenshot of a page in his book ‘The eyes of Darkness’. It is true that corona virus outbreak began in Wuhan - China. But the idea that the virus was created in a Chinese lab is actually a Conspiracy theory. A novel is a work of fiction, after all.
One misleading video on ‘Tik-Tok’ was viewed more than 10 million times before it was removed and yet video duets- reactions to the original- still lingered on, showing how difficult it is to kill digital false hoods. Other posts baselessly claimed that the virus was created by the Chinese government for population control. The conspiracy group QAnon falsely claimed in a video that the creation of this dreadful virus has been backed by the Bill Gates.
A tweet with over 140,000 likes predicted 65 million deaths, a debunked claim- along with false remedies, prophylactics and cures. The problem of containment gets worse when power users such as politicians give this false information a boost. In US, Trump helped amplify tweets from the support of QAnon, the conspiracy group active in spreading Corona virus rumors. Republican party official Solomon Yue tweeted to more than 100,000 followers that the virus was stolen from Canada for use of a Bio weapon, and Jim Banks Republican congressman tweeted out a link, shared 1000 times claiming that virus was a part of covert Chinese biological weapons program. The Chinese state media even circulated a fake image of a building claiming that a hospital has been built in 16 hours or some posts showing that the same was completed in just 6 days.
An outrageous post is doing rounds on social media with a claim that China has sought its highest court’s approval to kill 20,000 Corona virus patients to avoid further spread of virus.The viral post is suggesting that the Italian Prime Minister has announced Italy's surrender to the Corona virus outbreak. The fake news suggests that Italy has lost control over the pandemic and thus given up on the chance of flattening the virus' curve.
A viral picture showing large number of dead bodies lying on the road is also related to Corona virus deaths either in China or Italy, basically published by Hindustantimes in March 2014, in a picture gallery of 'Top shots of the day', and had been captioned as, “People lay down in a pedestrian zone as part of an art project in remembrance of the 528 victims of the ‘Katzback’ Nazi concentration camp, in Frankfurt, Reuters”.
A post is going viral on Face book that Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the mosque to offer prayers to protect China from the deadly Corona virus outbreak. However, the video is of July 2016, when the Chinese president visiting a mosque on a tour of Northwest China. Prime Minister Narendra Modi's call for a Janta Curfew on March 22 and his appeal to clap at 5 pm to extend gratitude to the helpers and medical practitioners who are working relentlessly to fight corona virus sparked a storm of incorrect information on social media.
Indian citizens came out with farfetched theories and claims that clapping together at 5 pm would create a "vibration" in the atmosphere that will lead to the eradication of corona virus. Amitabh Bachchan, in a now-deleted tweet, also shared the same theory. The cartoon published by ‘The Hindu’ newspaper shows the virus dressed in a suit worn by Muslims in the Indian subcontinent and pointing an AK 47 rifle assaulting at the earth, is propaganda to propagate Islamophobia and Xenophobia.
Some posts recommend drinking bleach; others peddle falsehoods about the benefits of cannabis, homeopathy, air purifiers, and drinking of cow urine to protect ourselves from this virus. WHO has insisted on using alcohol-based sanitizers only to reduce the risk of corona virus, but we have now cow urine sanitizer in the market.
It is for sale since 2018 but was highly advertised after the corona virus outbreak. There are numerous people with false beliefs like cow urine has recovery properties and others with notions that eating garlic, high temperature and hot water showers can eradicate virus. Some people believe that coronavirus is the end of world while others think that it is the wrath of God upon those who are implementing CAA and NRC.
Falsehood flies and truth comes to light
Recently developed technology has blurred the line between genuine and fake digital artifacts, thereby exposing content consumers to a commoditized form of mass deception, such as through the development of technology for creating fake videos in which individuals appear to be speaking or doing something they never actually did.
In 2018, five people were killed by a mob in India and a wave of violence followed after wrong messages about child abductions were forwarded on social media. In 2016 the Pakistani defense minister, Khawaja Muhammad Asif, threatened the Israeli defense minister with Pakistan’s nuclear weapons after reading a false news report. In France, following the fire outbreak on the roof of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, fake videos and posts claiming the involvement of Muslims for the incident became viral, giving rise to Islamophobia. Donald Trump’s victory has been attributed to pro-Trump false news extensively shared on Face book prior to the elections.
Videos of presidential addresses by former United States president Barack Obama in order to create fake videos of him making any arbitrary statement with his lip movements realistically synchronized. With such technology and editing apps creating fake videos is as easy as editing the text of a video’s transcript in order to change the speaker’s words. Samsung have developed a new ML algorithm that takes still images of individuals as input and produces as an output a video of them speaking.
Moreover, the OpenAI lab in San Francisco and Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence in Seattle have built an artificial ‘fake-text’ generator that mimics human writing, thereby producing machine-composed writing that could pass as genuine. The technology poses such a serious threat that OpenAI considered the technology “too dangerous to be released into the real world”.
The availability of such technology raises many ethical issues. It has the potential to make any individual appear engaged in an act that they did not commit, such as showing a political leader making a racist remark, a candidate being involved in criminal activities before elections, or a public officer committing an adulterous act. It can affect an individual’s control over their reputation, while being a threat to human dignity, national security, and the well-being of human societies.
Considering the threat that the fake news and synthetic content has posed to humanity, and to counter these drastic practices that are rapidly spreading false news, I have consulted the Islamic guidance on falsehood—the teachings of the Holy Qur’ān and Sunnah of the Prophet (pbuh), the Islamic rules and ethics to ensure that our perceptions are influenced only through honest and trustworthy content and that we do not become victims of manipulation and deceit.
As per Islam, acquiring information requires that a Muslim must verify the credibility of the sources. Reporters and news transmitters need to thoroughly check the reliability of the source of news before they accept or deny it.
A guideline to verify news source includes knowing the author of the article and the sponsor of the medium, determining if there is an agenda to the content, what kind of page it is and, for online source, whether the URL is relevant to the content, along with ensuring the information is complete, accurate and current. With the growth of media sources, finding the credibility of every source can be a challenge, hence, if authentication is not possible, then it is advisable to suspend the judgement.
The Holy Qurʾān says (chapter 17, verse 36): “Do not follow that of which you have no knowledge. Surely the hearing, the sight, the heart - each of these will be questioned.” Muslims should take inspiration from the ḥadīth scholars and narrators who are very cautious about accepting narrations from unknown narrators or of those whose identity and character were doubtful.
In addition to this, the Prophet (pbuh) has also commented: “Indeed among the excellence of a person’s Islam is that he leaves what does not concern him.” Following these teachings, a Muslim is advised to ignore the news that does not affect them in this world or in the Hereafter, this includes the celebrity gossips, scandals and other news that may seem interesting but is of no benefit.
Islam guides Muslims to seek clarification. Upon accessing a piece of information, an individual should investigate it before acting upon it. This command is given in the Qurʾān in chapter 49, verse 6: “O you who have believed, if there comes to you a disobedient one with information, investigate, lest you harm a people out of ignorance and become, over what you have done, regretful”.
Furthermore, while judging a piece of news, it is advised to do so without any prejudice. It is an Islamic belief that human intellect, wisdom, understanding and reason are a trust (Amānah) of Allah and that these should not be used to harm another human soul. Hence, before spreading any piece of information, Muslims have a responsibility to consider the impact it can have on an individual.
Holy Prophet (pbuh) is reported to have said, “A Muslim is the one from whose tongue and hand the people are safe, and the believer is the one from whom the people’s lives and wealth are safe.” and “He who believes in Allah and the Last Day must either speak good or remain silent”.
Muslims, therefore, need to be cautious when clicking on the share button or forwarding a message that can be insulting, hurtful or offensive to a sect, religion or an individual. The cautiousness also applies against spreading incorrect information in the form of spam messages, chain mails, conspiracy theories, or fake news, articles.
Social media posts or website articles receive more attention when they are accompanied by a huge number of likes, shares or comments and are more likely to spread further. Islam prohibits Muslims from sharing unverified information. Almighty Allah says in the Holy Qur’ān in chapter 24 verse 15: ‘‘When you received it with your tongues and said with your mouths that of which you had no knowledge and thought it was insignificant while it was, in the sight of Allah, tremendous”.
The Holy Prophet (pbuh) has also stressed upon avoiding the spreading of false news. He has said “The person who goes about with calumnies will never enter Paradise”. The companion of the Prophet (pbuh) and second caliph of Islam, ʿUmar ibn-al-Khaṭṭāb (may Allah be pleased with him), has also said: “It is enough of a lie for a man that he narrates everything he hears”.
The purpose of all these Islamic guidelines is to encourage the individual, societal and communal well-being, intellect, dignity and property. If these objectives are not met, chaos and disorder will prevail. #Stay home, investigate, interrogate and then propagate.
Author is a research scholar at National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration, MHRD, New Delhi