Akeed - The 2018 political and social events and crises in Jordan led to an increase in the number of rumors circulating through social media platforms and media outlets. As of May 1, 2018, the Jordanian Media Credibility Monitor "Akeed" developed a methodology for monitoring and publishing these rumors in monthly reports.
The overall and cumulative report unveiled that such events; including the Dead Sea incident; the floods in Petra and Madaba; the series of protests which started with the "Fourth Circle Protests" and later led to the resignation of former Prime Minister Hani Mulki; the "Tobacco Case” alongside other local events, have contributed to the proliferation of these rumors.
The report, which “Akeed” will be publishing annually, tackles the rumors that propagated during 2018, specifically since May 1, 2018, while the most central rumors are analyzed and reviewed along with their accompanying events and concerned parties.
For the purpose of the analysis, “Akeed” has developed a methodology for monitoring rumors. According to this methodology, a rumor is defined as "incorrect information pertaining to a Jordanian public affair or Jordanian interests that has circulated among approximately more than 5,000 people through digital media channels.”
Rumors in Numbers
The cumulative study, which spanned over an eight-month monitoring period, uncovered a total of 274 rumors that tackled a Jordanian issue and circulated through social media platforms and through local and foreign media outlets; marking an average of 34 rumors per month. Of these rumors, a total of 200 rumors originated from social media platforms (73%), while the rest (27%) stemmed from local media outlets.
The share of rumors from outside the country reached a total of 74 rumors (27% of which were from social media platforms or from foreign media outlets), while media outlets republished 44 rumors that originated from social media platforms (about 16%).
Rumors from Abroad
The amount of rumors that originated from outside the country was remarkable, as 74 out of the overall 274 rumors originated from non-local sources including several media outlets interested in Jordanian affairs; Syrian websites affiliated with the regime or its opposition parties; pages run by Jordanian expats, as well as Israeli activists like Edy Cohen who presents himself as “an academic researcher who specializes in Middle Eastern affairs.”
Outlets and platforms from abroad contributed to the amount of rumors that surfaced during the past eight months with the period between May and July reflecting the highest number of such rumors with a total of 41% (38 out of the overall 92 spotted rumors), according to Akeed’s survey.
During this period, rumors from abroad formed 38% of the total amount found on social media platforms and 9% of those which originated from either local, regional or foreign media outlets and those interested in Jordanian affairs.
A total of 19 rumors were spotted throughout August, 19 of which (42%) surfaced from sources abroad –13 of which came from social media networks, pages of Jordanians living abroad and Israeli activists– marking 29% of the total number of rumors spotted on social media platforms.
Rumors from media outlets and news websites totaled six rumors in August (13% of which were spotted on both local and international media outlets).
In September, 42 rumors were spotted. Five of them (12%) originated from sources abroad, two of them were from social media platforms abroad and another three were from foreign media outlets (accounting for 7.14% of the overall number of 42 rumors).
In October, the number of rumors reached a total of 26, three of which (12%) were from abroad, two (8%) were from social media platforms, and only one rumor (4%) was listed under the media outlets’ and news websites’ category.
A total of 35 rumors were recorded in November 2018, four of which (11.4%) were from abroad, only one (5.5%) originated from social media platforms, while the share of media outlets and foreign news websites marked three rumors (17.7%).
During December 2018, 34 rumors surfaced including three rumors (8.82%) from abroad, one rumor (3.8%) from social media networks, while media outlets were responsible for two rumors accounting for 25% of total rumors that originated from both local and international media outlets and news websites.
The most prominent rumor of these was about the Jordan Armed Forces (JAF), which had a share of two rumors originating from non-local media outlets (marking 25% of the eight rumors that JAF debunked during 2018).
Rumors were associated with certain events and specific parties. Below is a detailed analysis of each one:
His Majesty’s Vacation:
Many rumors surfaced through social media platforms and foreign media outlets concerning the annual vacation that His Majesty King Abdullah II spent in the United States last summer. This subject received 7% of the 92 rumors which circulated during the period between May 1 and July 31, 2018.
The rumors spread widely until His Majesty returned from his vacation. The King criticized the spread of rumors on several occasions during his numerous meetings with officials, writers and journalists.
In an article entitled “Social or Antisocial Media?” that was published following the Dead Sea incident, His Majesty the King voiced his concern regarding the negative trends on social media platforms. His Majesty said: "This calls to mind the wave of rumors and false stories that spread while I was on my annual break, and continued even after I returned and resumed my activities. The question persisted: where is the king? Some went as far as questioning my presence even as I stood before them. Can it be that an illusion perpetuated by screens has become a reality to some?”
There was also a rumor that was shared on social media indicating that the Royal Hashemite Court was preparing to hold a huge ceremony costing millions of Jordanian dinars on the anniversary of His Majesty King Abdullah II's Coronation.
“Akeed” published a special report concerning this rumor after contacting the Royal Hashemite Court’s Media and Communications Directorate – which debunked the rumor, confirming that it was "absolutely untrue".
Jordan Armed Forces (JAF):
During the year 2018, the Jordan Armed Forces (JAF) was the subject of a series of rumors reaching a total of eight rumors with sources that varied between local and foreign media outlets, regarding which “Akeed” has already issued a detailed report.
The most prominent of these rumors were about an alleged selling of Marka International Airport; a selling of state treasury lands and airbase in Tla Al Ali; a dispute that erupted between JAF and Al-Wala’ Company; a Syrian woman killed by the Arab Army (which was promoted by Syrian news websites) as well as the shooting of Syrian emigrants by Arab Army personnel. Rumors also included false stories about initiating the retirement of several officers and the falling of a paratrooper.
All these rumors were debunked by the Jordan Armed Forces through official statements that were published by the media. It is worth mentioning that local media outlets did not circulate these rumors which were in fact published by social media platforms.
The Dead Sea Incident:
After the incident at the Dead Sea, which resulted in 22 deaths mostly of school students during a trip to Zarqa Maain area in Madaba on October 25, 2018, rumors associated with the subject spread widely through media outlets and social media platforms reaching a total of 10 rumors. This marked 38% of the rumors that were documented during October, 2018.
The most prominent of these rumors were about opening the shutters of both the Maain Valley and the Zarqa Maain Dams; the resignation of the Minister of Education and the Minister of Tourism and Antiquities; the association of the Dead Sea incident with a bridge that collapsed in the same area; the presence of two Jordanian patients in Hadassah Medical Center; and the circulation of photos for an American model, a Palestinian singer and a Syrian child as victims of the Dead Sea incident – previously documented by “Akeed” in a separate report.
Floods in Petra and southern parts of the Kingdom, which occurred on November 9, 2018, were also part of the associated rumors including the false news of the Wala Dam’s water-influx and the doctored video showing children being saved by civilians during the floods.
The Tobacco Case:
The "Tobacco" case had its own share of rumors especially with regards to its first suspect, Awni Mutee.
After surfacing in mid-2018, the issue was heavily covered by the media. The case had a total of 92 rumors associated with it – marking 17% of rumors which circulated during the period between May 1 and July 31, 2018.
There were several rumors about Mutee being arrested after fleeing Jordan until he was indeed brought back from Turkey on December 17, 2018 and received by the Jordanian authorities.
There were many rumors –which were neither confirmed nor denied– about the involvement of specific individuals in Mutee fleeing the country and the involvement of some in the case itself. Even after he was brought back to the Kingdom, social media platforms witnessed a recurring subject where people questioned the identity of the detainee claiming that his appearance had changed.
Other rumors included an alleged investigation with members of the parliament concerning the case; Mutee settling in Cuba; Titi helping Mutee in his escape plan and other similar rumors.
In response to implicating many political figures in the Tobacco case, the Minister of State for Media Affairs, Jumana Ghunaimat, commented on this with a press release. Ghunaimat stressed that the "investigation is still ongoing, and that what is being shared on social media platforms can only be described as character-assassination while belittling facts”.
The Tobacco case started when competent authorities seized four sites within the Zarqa free zone where the manufacturing of tobacco products was illegally executed. Mutee is currently facing tax evasion charges of 150 million Jordanian dinars.
Omar Razzaz Cabinet:
The formation of Dr. Omar Razzaz’s cabinet following the “Fourth Circle Protests” demanding the dismissal of Prime Minister Hani Mulki and his government last June infused a series of rumors, discriminatory speech and violation of privacy.
Reports that surfaced in the media during the formation of Razzaz’s government included "Ministers from Razzaz Cabinet Defend themselves"; "Four Ministers Answer to Disability Benefits”; “Testimony of Minister Gharaibeh”; “Relation between Razzaz and Lattouf”; “Hammouri’s Expertise and his Relation to Tarawneh” as well as “Razzaz Defends his Cabinet against Rumors”.
Part of the rumors included topics such as the Prime Minister receives two million Jordanian Dinars upon joining the government, Razzaz visits Salt to follow up on security measures, Razzaz hints at his resignation, the government finalizing the General Pardon law in addition to a rumor that claimed a minister received 10,000 JD upon being appointed and the news about Islamists being part of Razzaz’s next Cabinet shuffle.
Other false news that circulated during the past year included rumors of disease-injected melons that are available in the market; a growing number of cases of Leishmaniasis; a hike in land registration fees; the installation of private communication towers on schools’ rooftops; an increase in telecommunication payments; a rise in bus-transportation fees for students using certain routes and an outsourced curricula-translation done for the National Centre for Curriculum Development. This is in addition to many allegations that revolved around the General Pardon law.
Features and Dynamics of Rumors
The proliferation of rumors and their Lifecycle: Rumors that surfaced in 2018 were marked by their quantity and the way in which they circulated, which was far and wide. According to Akeed’s quantitative and qualitative analysis, an average of 34 rumors per month was identified; which marks a relatively high figure with regard to the methodology used in surveying these rumors.
Social media platforms and messaging applications are considered major contributors in accelerating the exposure process of rumors and in converting false information into widely spread rumors.
Connection to Crises: Around 70% of analyzed rumors were associated with local crises – as it is often the case during emergencies, crises and atypical conditions. This was evident in the Tobacco case, the Dead Sea incident and the floods crisis.
Stubborn Rumors: The report reveals a “Stubborn Rumor” phenomenon which is influenced by –and feeds on– the stubborn approach of the public’s opinion.
The phenomenon shows that a rumor’s lifecycle may continue to extend despite denying or debunking the rumor more than once and in spite of proving in false.
Sometimes influencers re-adopt rumors, the public follows in their footsteps and the rumor is resuscitated. This was evident in the rumor associated with opening the shutters of the Maain Dam. The false news was countered by official authorities as well as by experts; however, the rumor continued to spread until an investigative team was formed.
Live broadcast: Some rumors appeared (while others were promoted) through social media live streaming services as some activists shared their own comments and interpretations of certain events.
Confusing facts with personal opinions: In observing the qualitative features of rumors that emerged in 2018, some cases were the result of what might be considered as the lack of distinction between opinions and information – which led the public to consider these opinions as facts and accordingly adopt them and share them.
Loud Minorities: The role that loud minorities play during times of crisis, emergency or political events is considered to be evident.
The loud Minority phenomenon is a global one that is being employed through social media platforms by a group of activists and influencers who give the impression that their views reflect general opinion. This contributes to generating political or social polarization during these critical times.
New Populism: The qualitative and quantitative monitoring mechanism spotted a new digital populism phenomenon that has been repeatedly used in many areas of the world. This phenomenon explains the behavior of social media users who seek fame through spreading false news and rumors based on exciting headlines in order to gain a larger base of online followers. Such users have no political or cultural agendas or any hidden goals other than complying with the current trends of the web.
Has the behavior of Jordanians changed with regard to normalizing rumors?
The world is becoming increasingly concerned about the aggravating phenomenon of digitally-spread lies – even more so about people’s willingness to believe false news, lies and rumors in addition to acknowledging these lies as if they were the norm. Sometimes people are more willing to accept lies and adapt to them than to accept and believe the truth.
In 2018, official and media warnings against rumors and lies that exist on social media have clearly increased in Jordan. Although this report indicates that the margin of rumors in Jordan has increased, the number is still within global average rates. It is also useful to know that not all false news or fake information is classified under the rumors’ category, as this could result in creating and spreading more rumors.
Social and digital media platforms provide a collective pre-disposition to the consumption of lies and to the normalization of accepting these lies. Thus, the frequency of being exposed to lies results in distorting one’s own knowledge and changes the public approach to becoming less tolerant of others and more acquiescent to hatred – which aids in transforming the notion of lies into a cultural and social ideology.
A number of factors have contributed to Jordanians' tolerance of rumors and media lies, perhaps the most significant of which is the substantial decline in public confidence in public institutions or in political sectors, as is the case with losing confidence in professional media.
The flawed delivery of public information played a key role in worsening the situation including the lack of national practices that ensure the right to accessing information and making information publically available to citizens. This further weakened the capacity of public officials when faced with crisis and emergency situations – giving more space for rumors to flourish.
The Fight against Rumors
Based on international standards and expertise, there are three basic conditions for reducing rumors and false news:
First: Spreading media and information literacy in addition to integrating these concepts within educational curricula of schools and universities, and within youth activities employed by youth institutions to spread awareness regarding news, media and digital literacy.
Second: Providing public information to citizens by guaranteeing their right to accessing information; re-establishing this right in order to reflect the practices of officials when dealing with crises and emergencies; filling the information gap in addition to providing information along with establishing public information outlets.
Third: Ensuring the existence of professional journalism and media whether in print, radio, television or digital outlets along with collecting and processing information and submitting them to the public. The better these means are, the more they will be qualified to answer the public professionally and effectively counter lies, fake news or rumors.