Should we put people in jail for spreading false news on Whatsapp?
While people tend to watch the news on television stations, the interest of instant alert has moved out of official news application and migrated into — individually made — Whatsapp groups, thus falling into lack of real journalism and a pit full of false news.
And while the biggest television station in Lebanon such as LBC, MTV, AlJadeed, always publicize their mobile applications along with their official websites and social media accounts, people felt much more comfortable into getting their breaking news from the most easiest and the most familiar platform, the Whatsapp instant messaging application.
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Meanwhile, the main reason for this transformation of news sources can be attributed to the lack of good mobile app development and user interface, the more reasonable justification for this shift can be accredited to the “good deals” that mobile operators has given to customers in Lebanon, by the choice of subscribing to Whatsapp services for a lower cost than ordinary prices for data package.
Alfa telecom, charging 2$ for the usage of Whatsapp application with a data bundle of 100MB for 30 days, as for Touch telecom, the company is charging 6$ for the Whatsapp usage with the maximum data usage of 300MB over the course of 30 days.
During the last 5 years or so, while news companies were struggling, and facing closure, such as Assafir newspaper, over the lack of funding, the professionalism, that their employee had and their journalistic talents and knowledge into crafting the “ utmost ” skilled articles and news pieces seemed to be drifting away from the common people, the mass lebanese society, which was getting more addicted over Whatsapp group.
These new online communities, where the majority of admins had no real media background, were creating their own “cyber news agencies” and spreading all kind of information, in the absence of any supervisory role from the people who really works in the media or from competent authorities to follow the basic guidelines of real journalism.
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To put it another way, during the last couple of weeks, 3 incidents happened which could be easily related to the usage of Whatsapp groups.
The first one dating back to Monday the 5th of June, several news websites reported that a video has been shared over social media and Whatsapp groups, claiming that 3 Syrian men stole a jewelry shop in Shtoura area in the Bekaa, and killed its owner. But later on the same day, the Lebanese internal security forces (ISF) denied this whole story being shared on Whatsapp, ultimately elucidating that the video was taken in Egypt and not Lebanon.
لا صحة للفيديو الذي يتم تداوله عبر خدمة الـwhatsapp عن سرقة محل مجوهرات في شتورا بعدما قتلوا صاحبه، علماً أن الحادثة حصلت في مصر #قوى_الأمن
— قوى الامن الداخلي (@LebISF) June 5, 2017
The second one dating back to Friday 16th of June, couple of sentences were being spread over several Whatsapp groups that “a man and a woman in their thirties were found dead in the town of Tabarja in Kesrouan”, a piece of information that was reported later on by the, yes, official Lebanese National News Agency (NNA), but later clarified by the ISF that the crime happened outside of Lebanon few days earlier.
— قوى الامن الداخلي (@LebISF) June 16, 2017
And recently, today, out of nowhere, a clip showing 3 weird looking blue babies has been widely shared on facebook, along with this text:
Urgent from the the town of AlKouwakh, Hermel district.Al Manar tv correspondent in Baalbeck reported that the village witnessed a “strange” phenomenon this morning. A farmer found strange creatures under the olive trees, which caused panic among the residents.The municipality was informed, and the creatures were moved to the university hospital of “Dar Al Amal” to conduct further medical examinations to recognize their species and the final result should be announced tomorrow in the afternoon.— Cyber aman news Whatsapp group —
And with the absence of official statements denouncing these avatar looking-like babies, a statement, shared also by several Whatsapp group, claiming that the municipality is denying these claims:
A statement from from AlKhouwakh municipality:
The Municipality of AlKouwakh denies the reports of discovering strange creatures in the town and it confirms that this issue is pure imagination that has been falsely linked to AlManar website.
Furthermore, the municipality finds it very odd to use the name of AlManar from some social networking sites to give more credibility to peculiar false news.
— Amhaz News —
Obviously these blue babies are not real, and as a person who is following false news over the internet, I could easily say that this video clip traveled all the world with various caption, but the truth behind it is that they are silicon made toys fabricated by Babyclon, a company in Spain, selling them for around 2400$, with more realistic infants copies available in their stores.
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Moreover, other countries has already taken measures to combat the spread of false news on social media groups and mobile apps such as Whatsapp.
For example,the United Arab Emirates has taken the decision In April to make all admins accountable for the materials that are being shared in their groups, and they are now liable for prosecution if any rumor or fake news is circulated on the platform they own or run, according to the Federal Decree-Law №5 of 2012 on Combating Cybercrimes.
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Given these mentioned points, I still believe jail shouldn’t be considered as an option to combat the spread of false news especially in a country such as Lebanon, but at the same time, some measures need to be taken from the government to cut down the spread of such news, not only towards Whatsapp groups, but also toward news website that are still falling for fake news and the usage of clickbait titles to spread them as much as they can.
For the time being, most of the websites that do listen to the voices pointing out the fakery, are not tackling this issue in the correct way, by purging false news and sending out a corrections for their readers, but rather, they would just unpublish/delete their articles or substitute the original false content with something totally different while keeping the original link, eventually leaving the same link preview generated over social media platforms, consequently getting more shares, likes and visitors.
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A copy of this post has been published on Medium.