Fake news is at it again!
A story with a video clip that has gone viral in some mainstream Indian news outlets, claiming that His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, had chanted a Hindu prayer greeting at a ceremony organised by a Hindu group, is an obnoxious but carefully designed attempt by some groups to spread false propaganda and gain political mileage in India.
The video, tweeted by leading Indian channels such as Times Now and Zee TV in the run up to Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the UAE, claimed that Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed had chanted “Jai Siya Ram” (a common Hindu prayerful greeting addressing the deity Ram) while addressing a Hindu spiritual programme conducted by the guru Morari Bapu in Abu Dhabi in September 2016.
But the story is patently false. 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 UAE-based columnist and commentator on Arab affairs.
But within hours of being posted, the fake stories went viral on social media – with hundreds of unsuspecting users retweeting the same fake news and some even passing “expert” judgement on them.
A user with the handle @sona2905, for instance, said: “If you understand geo-politics, you know what this means and where [Indian] PM Modi stands.”
Another user, with the handle @nandlala559, offered his “heartiest congratulations to Abu Dhabi Crown Prince for his valuable speech” and said: “Really Good Job for PM MODIJI/INDIA”.
Indian news media has recently gone on an overdrive in covering Modi’s visit to the UAE — commenting on everything from his diet to his legendary hugs to the warm reception he received from his hosts in the UAE.
The fact that a raft of top Indian channels would fail to distinguish between Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed – who was the Chief Guest at the Indian Republic Day celebrations in 2017 and visited India as a state guest in 2016 – and someone else from the UAE is thus very unlikely and raises several disturbing and alarming facts.
First, it is a clear indication that mainstream media in India is falling prey 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 half-truths from spreading far and wide, and are incapable of verifying basic facts – which forms the backbone of responsible journalism.
Secondly, when tracked online, the digital footprints of the viral videos show a clear pattern.
All the stories were uploaded between a similar time period: just ahead of Modi’s arrival in UAE.
And they all started the same way – at first were the gloating and unverified declarations.
Times Now, for instance, tweeted the video at 3.45 pm Indian time on February 10, noting: “When the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince was invited on stage to share his views, he began his speech with ‘Jai Siya Ram’, sending the crowd into frenzy.”
Even though scores of alert Twitterati immediately pointed out the glaring error to the channel, it retweeted the same video and text again at 12.05 am on February 11.
Later, the channel modified its story slightly to note that “Abu Dhabi's Sheikh Sultan started his speech with ‘Jai Siya Ram’” – carefully maintaining the Abu Dhabi link so that original resonance of the message was not lost.
Similar patterns played out across a host of other channels – from mainstream Zee News to more right-leaning India.com, postcard.news and several similar sites – who seemed to revel in proliferating fake news based on unverified sources.
With thousands of retweets, the same fake clip soon found traction in a section of regional news sites across India – from the Dainik Bhaskar and Jansatta in Hindi to ABP Ananda and 24 Ghanta in Bengali to Kannada Prabha in Kannada.
The pattern of a known fake and out-of-context video being deliberately recirculated multiple times by a selected section of the Indian media is a clear pointer that the objective of the exercise is to spread malicious and false 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 fora 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 allotment of the land for building the temple is also 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 Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed’s goodwill gesture or the UAE’s foundations of mutual respect and cultural co-existence for the sake of domestic political gains will not succeed – but could have a debilitating impact on the growing momentum of relations.
The culture and legacy of UAE-India relations are so similar that they revel in the 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 both India and the UAE are acutely aware of it.
But some don’t seem to get it – that’s why such fake news.