Lebanon crisis

‘Fake news’ in Lebanon causes anxiety, panic for those bombarded with misinformation

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When a 40-year-old businesswoman read on WhatsApp a broadcast message that her Lebanese bank was announcing bankruptcy she almost had a heart attack.

Hala Mohammad had an uncomfortable feeling all night after seeing the unverified announcement, not knowing the fate of her savings and deposits.

Her friend, who had shared that image, and her friend’s parents are clients of the same bank where Mohammad’s husband also works.

The family had done business at the bank for decades and they were furious until the next morning when they confirmed that the message had been nothing but a rumor.

Rumors that ping from phone to phone can create panic and fear, and in Lebanon, social media users face such rumors on a daily basis.

The constant of barrage of unverified content can stress social media users out, especially when the news could potentially heavily impact their life.

Misinformation on a former prime minister’s demise

In another instance, an image of former Prime Minister Salim al-Hoss surfaced nearly three weeks ago on WhatsApp and Facebook announcing his death. The image was picked up by various news websites.

However, al-Hoss was, and is, alive, and his grandson posted a picture of himself with the former prime minister hanging out on a balcony.

Former Lebanese Prime Minister Salim al-Hoss and his grandson pose together in photo to deny his death rumors. (Photo circulated on WhatsApp)
Former Lebanese Prime Minister Salim al-Hoss and his grandson pose together in photo to deny his death rumors. (Photo circulated on WhatsApp)

Storekeeper Mohammed Ebrahim said sharing misinformation on social media scares users and triggers mental stress, especially when the news is related to the already ailing economy of Lebanon.

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“Last week my daughter received a WhatsApp image informing her that their exam had been cancelled. At first she was happy, but then she called her school and it turned out to be a rumor or what her classmates described [as] a joke,” Ebrahim said.

Some Lebanese are fed up with the constant stream of unverified information flooding their phones.

“I have stopped sharing any unsourced or unverified news or rumors on WhatsApp because this has become a very stressful practice. We are fed up,” Maha C., an artist, told Al Arabiya English.

Social media users are bombarded with factoids

Today, there is an onslaught of information on the internet, and social media users are often ill-equipped to distinguish what is real and what is fake. This can have polarizing effects on a society, and for individuals, some misinformation can be anxiety inducing.

“People are bombarded by too many so-called factoids every day that make it so hard to differentiate between fact and fiction,” Mahmoud Ghandour, a certified hypnotherapist and corporate trainer, told Al Arabiya English.

Misinformation shocks recipients who end up not knowing how to deal with it and unable to check its credibility, expert on sociology of conflicts Samah Halwany said.

“Misinformation and fake news burdens recipients, who end up wanting to get rid of that burden by sharing it on social media. Recipients would immediately resort to social media as a mean to dismiss the stress and burden caused by the fake news and misinformation. When misinformation frightens recipients, the latter would want others to share that same feeling so they share the content on social media for others to be scared also,” Halwany explained.

A recipient, who forwards to others misinformation received, realizes that others who see the misinformation will interact with it or share the content, according to Halwany, who said those recipients would feel that someone has given them attention or cooperated with them.

A psychological specialist at the Lebanese University Myrna al-Sayed said social media is a powerful tool that impacts the public, positively or negatively.

“Sometimes a rumor could be partly factual but is purposely manipulated by promoters/launchers to serve hidden motives or personal gains,” she said.

People march during a demonstration marking one year since the start of nation-wide protests in Beirut, Lebanon October 17, 2020. (File photo: Reuters)
People march during a demonstration marking one year since the start of nation-wide protests in Beirut, Lebanon October 17, 2020. (File photo: Reuters)

Al-Sayed emphasized that those who launch rumors take advantage of insecurities and difficult circumstances facing the public and aim to irritate individuals, who are seeking information and explanation of some sort of event or phenomenon.

“When rumors are circulated, individuals turn skeptical due to the lack of political stability … meanwhile the recurrence of catastrophes triggers fear and stress among society members,” said al-Sayed, who stressed that the rumors’ launchers often do so for financial or commercial gains, amassing followers and likes on posts.

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Sometimes individuals launch rumors to test the public’s readiness to accept decisions or laws that are expected to be announced by policymakers, according to al-Sayed.

A neuro-linguistic-programming practitioner at Mind Your Power, Ghandour said they help patients, through hypnotherapy, erase any remnants of unwanted fake information that have been lodged in their subconscious.

“Minds are programed to process information they get even during sleep … so sleep ailments occur when the information is worrisome. We try our best during treatment to make people differentiate between truths and lies. We teach them how to triangulate (getting the same news from three different sources) any news that they get in order to ensure that they are true and creating a built in filter,” he concluded.

Irresponsible and illegal

Al-Sayed said that it is irresponsible to knowingly spread such rumors, and those who make them up often aim to “incite sectarian and partisan strife amongst the public.”

“They also enjoy destroying the psychological stability of others and breaking up internal morale,” al-Sayed said, calling on society to combat rumors through awareness campaigns in coordination with mainstream media and pertinent authorities.

Lawyer Joceline al-Rai said the act of sharing misinformation is punishable by law, especially if it aims to tarnish the reputation of an individual, entity, or the state.

“A person, who spreads fake news or a rumor using any median, in a context that libels or defames a person, entity or the state or jeopardizes the country’s unity and harmony could be tried and face an imprisonment or a fine according to a judge’s discretion,” al-Rai said.

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