Viral video spreads fake news on UAE
A false story in Indian media fails to take into account that both nations revel in an amazing range of pluralism
everal media outlets across India are scrambling to control the damage after falsely attributing a two-year-old viral video where an Emirati columnist says “Jai Siya Ram” to His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces.
The video, shared by Indian channels such as Times Now and Zee News in the run-up to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the UAE over the weekend, claimed that Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed had chanted the Hindu prayer greeting invoking the deity Ram while speaking at a spiritual programme conducted by the guru Morari Bapu in Abu Dhabi in September 2016.
But the story is patently false and Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed never attended any such event: the person in the video shown attending the ceremony is actually Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, a UAEbased columnist and commentator on Arab affairs.
In an online version of this column published earlier this week, Gulf News called out the glaring pattern of false propaganda evident in the viral video and stories — and the result was dramatic: the column itself went viral in India, was shared and picked up by several media outlets and widely cited by top journalists and commentators in the country as yet another example showing how some partisan news outfits were damaging the credibility of Indian media. It also triggered a wider debate on the politics of fake news, with some users on social media calling for more stringent norms by the Editors Guild in India to prevent such embarrassing and misleading episodes from recurring.
Method to the madness
Fake news and distorted attributions are now a global phenomenon growing at an alarming intensity. But when several media outlets in the same country start spreading the same video at around the same time with similar false attributions, then there appears to be a sinister method in the madness. More than irresponsible click-bait journalism, it becomes a carefully choreographed attempt to spread false propaganda and gain political mileage in India.
Mainstream Indian media is certainly no stranger to Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed — having extensively covered his two visits to India as the chief guest at the Indian Republic Day celebrations in 2017 and as a state guest in 2016. So the fact that they could not distinguish between Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed and someone else from the UAE is thus very unlikely, and raises several disturbing facts.
First, it is a clear indication that mainstream media in India is highly susceptible to propaganda and fake news, whether by choice or as acts of commission. They do not have adequate safeguards in place to prevent such distorted halftruths from spreading far and wide.
Second, the pattern of a misleading video being deliberately recirculated multiple times by a selected section of the Indian media was a clear pointer that the objective of the exercise was to spread malicious propaganda on a swathe of unsuspecting news consumers.
Ironically, this fake and dangerous exercise gained traction on social media on a day when the Indian prime minister witnessed the groundbreaking ceremony of the first Hindu temple in Abu Dhabi — made possible by the generous gesture of Shaikh Mohammad in donating land to the Indian community for the purpose.
In his speeches at various forums on Sunday, Modi spoke at length about how India and the UAE have come closer in the past few years, sharing deeply cherished common goals and values. The temple in Abu Dhabi is widely seen as one of those common values — it reflects the UAE’s moderation, tolerance and respect for all humanity irrespective of their faith or creed.
The BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha, which will manage the Abu Dhabi temple, itself came forward to thank Shaikh Mohammad for a noble gesture and said the decision reflected the “guiding vision of tolerance and harmony of the founding fathers of the UAE”. Indeed, the allotment of land for the temple is a testament of the UAE’s pluralistic values and its respect for the Hindu community in the country, which makes up an important part of its expat population.
Any attempt by any groups to demean the goodwill gestures of Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed or the UAE leadership’s foundations of cultural coexistence for the sake of domestic political gains will not succeed, but could derail the unprecedented momentum in bilateral relations that Modi and the UAE leadership have strived so hard to build in the past few years. The culture and legacy of UAE-India relations are so similar that they revel in an amazing range of pluralism — in religion, language, ethnicity, food and so on. The allotment of the land for the temple in Abu Dhabi is in that spirit, and so is Sultan Al Qassemi’s greeting to the Indian diaspora at the 2016 gathering. Both India and the UAE are acutely aware of that strong foundation of mutual respect.
But some don’t seem to get it — and that’s why they revel in such fake news.