Changing the Gilaf (cover) of Holy Kaaba is a traditional ceremony in Makkah and, as in every year, it was held with due religious solemnity in October last.
Many photos of this event are found across the cyber world. A Bangla site posted one such picture, but with the caption: “The imam of the Holy Kaaba here vouches for Sayedee’s good character.”
Delawar Hossain Sayedee, nayeb-e-ameer of Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami, has recently been sentenced to death for involvement in genocide and other crimes against humanity during the Liberation War in 1971.
In January, the same photo, showing eminent personalities attending the Makkah ceremony, popped up in a social network site. This time, there was a news report that read: “A human chain led by the khatib of Holy Kaaba protests the war crimes trial in Bangladesh.”
The news item was posted in a Facebook page purported to be of a Bangla daily. Similar stories were found in three newspapers known to be supporters or mouthpieces of the BNP, Jamaat and other Islamist groups.
One of the dailies after publishing this news in its print edition removed the item from its website without running a correction.
The website of another daily used the news item only to remove it later with apology to its readers. Another newspaper took no step after running it in its print and web versions.
“Any information that is not accurate definitely has a negative impact on the mind of a person who is receiving it,” Professor Shamim F Karim, an expert on human psychology, told The Daily Star.
“When we get wrong information, we form our beliefs and attitudes on the basis of the information that is not accurate.”
After the February 15 murder of blogger Ahmed Rajib Haidar, some quarters, especially radical Islamists, through online propaganda tried not only to justify the killing but also label the Shahbagh movement as “anti-Islamic”.
It was reported in the media how a fake blog with anti-Islam content was made to go viral in the name of Rajib, also an architect and Shahbagh activist, to malign the movement.
When some right-wing newspapers took up this line of propaganda whipping up religious sentiments, fanatics unleashed terror across the country.
Citing the Code of Conduct 1993 (2002 as amended) for the newspapers and journalists, Bangladesh Press Council Chairman Justice BK Das said that unconfirmed reports or reports based on rumours shall be verified before publication and no report of an event can be distorted to influence readers.
Any aggrieved person or group directly involved with the news published in a newspaper can lodge a complaint with the press council, he added.
Last year, as the government declined to accept anymore Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, an online campaign against Bangladesh began using misleading captions and fake photos of atrocities on Rohingyas.
Some local newspapers in Cox’s Bazar ran some of those photos, adding to tension and confusion among the people there.
The Facebook post that described the ceremony of changing Gilaf-e-Kaaba as a demonstration against war crimes trial had referred to a report published in a Bangla daily on January 6.
On December 3 last year, another newspaper published a picture of a rally in Turkey, saying over a hundred thousand people in Kadikoy Square were demanding the release of Jamaat-e-Islami leaders behind bars on war crimes charges.
An English version of the news and the picture have also been found on a website called Bangladesh Independent News Network (BDINN) with the same date and credit lines and title “Millions of people gathered in Turkey, demanding release of Jamaat leaders of Bangladesh.”
However, at the bottom of the same picture, a Turkish news website simply said: “PROPHETS OF LOVE rallies.”
“Under these circumstances,” said Prof Shamim, also a senior teacher at the educational and counselling psychology department of Dhaka University, “my whole cognition about my world is based on wrong or inaccurate information.”
The brain requires a lot of processing when it receives any information, she said, adding that the brain stores information even if it is wrong and when the same brain gets the right information on the same issue it commands you to sort it out.
A Bangla blog released a picture and news on December 15 last year with the dateline, “Tehran, Friday 14 December 2012.” The picture was of a march of veiled women and it was captioned, “Over a hundred thousand women rally in Tehran demanding release of Sayedee.”
But the same picture was found on the website of the Australian newspaper Daily Life with the caption: “Muslim women march down Macquarie Street, Sydney, in the annual Ashura procession to promote unity and spread the message of peace and harmony. 17th December 2010.”
Pinaki Bhattacharya, a blogger and online activist, told The Daily Star, “This is a crime; presenting distorted and misinformation is a crime.”
However, this was nothing new in the global political field or in Bangladesh, Pinaki said. Pasting the photograph of a person on a passport by removing the original photo was very common in Bangladesh in the recent past.
Fabrication became easy with the social media boom, he added.
Social media and networking sites have tremendous positive impacts. They have created an opportunity for each and every person in the world to exercise his/her freedom of expression.
But the tragic attacks on the Buddhist community in Ramu and some other places of Cox’s Bazar can be a unique example of how abuse of this opportunity can wreak havoc on a country or society.
A group of Islamist fanatics destroyed more than a dozen Buddhist monasteries in Ramu in September last year through using an anti-Islam photo on a fake Facebook account of a Buddhist youth.
The attackers in a planned way spread the picture of desecrating the Quran through mobile phones of many locals in Ramu through Bluetooth or picture message service.
The same technique was applied at Teknaf in Cox’s Bazar in the middle of last year on the Rohingya issue.
In June last year, many locals of Teknaf were frequently receiving pictures on their mobile phones via Bluetooth or as picture messages of the persecution of Rohingyas in neighbouring Rakhine state of Myanmar.
Those pictures were about horrific atrocities on Rohingyas that made people in Teknaf panicky.
Simultaneously, attempts by some hundred Rohingyas fleeing repression by the majority Buddhist population in Myanmar to enter Bangladesh left the people of Teknaf scared.
Undoubtedly, there is a record of the persecution of Rohingyas, but the spread of those pictures in the middle of last year was nothing but a tool of propaganda to create sympathy and support for Rohingyas among the bordering neighbourhood in Teknaf.
The Daily Star investigation revealed that those photos were misleading. Anyone can find the original source of an image posted online by searching similar images using tools or apps like Gophoto.it.
A Facebook account named “Save Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar (Burma)” shared a photo from another account called “Cyber group of Bangladesh”.
It was a photo of a mass grave and a line above read: “Stop killing Muslims in Burma….Please Share with Friends.”
Originally, it was news agency AFP’s photo with the caption, “A picture released by the Local Coordination Committees in Syria purportedly shows people standing around a mass grave in the town of Taftnaz on Thursday.”
This original picture and caption are available on the site of “The National,” an English-language daily newspaper published in Abu Dhabi in April last year.
The same Facebook account on July 17, 2012, released another picture with the caption: “Continuity of Massacre of Muslims of Burma by Buddhists, More than 1000 Killed yesterday.”
It was actually a picture of a 2004 incident in Thailand. Foreign news agencies released the photo with the caption: “Thai soldiers apprehend hundreds of men after demonstrators clashed with police outside the Tak Bai police station in Thailand’s Narathiwat Province, nearly 1150 km (715 miles) south of Bangkok, October 25, 2004.”
Pictures with misleading captions like “Terrorists of Buddhism of Burma Kill 500 Muslims at the Beach of Bay of Bengal today”, “Massacre is continuously going on,” “Massacre of Muslims in Burma,” “Muslims slaughtered by Buddhists in Burma” have been found on different sites.
Some sites claimed 40 thousand people had been killed.
In April 2010, there was a picture of Tibetan monks preparing for the mass cremation of earthquake victims on a mountaintop in Yushu county, Qinghai province, in China. That picture, too, was widely used in social media with the caption, “The killing of Muslims in Burma”.
A striking photo of a Tibetan who set himself on fire outside the Indian parliament to protest the visit by Chinese president Hu Jintao in March last year has also been spread with a false caption: “A Muslim was burned in Burma and journalists are taking pictures instead of saving him.”
An image from Theo van Gogh’s television documentary “Submission” was widely used in mainstream international media while a review of this film was published.
The image was of an actress with a passage from the Quran tattooed on her back. It was widely used in social media as an instance of the persecution of Muslims in Burma.
A photo has been posted on a Facebook page showing an elderly Muslim riding a motorbike in Lahore with a Bangla placard that said, “Demanding Allama Sayedee’s release.” In the original picture, the placard was in Urdu on a totally different issue, that of describing Muslims who observe New Year as people who have strayed from the path of Islam.
A picture of a grand rally led by Shahbagh youths was posted on social media with the Urdu caption, “A rally to protest against the sentences passed on Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh leaders is in progress in Dhaka”, while the gathering pressed for a ban on Jamaat politics and maximum punishment to war criminals.
When someone posts a fabricated picture, thousands of people share and watch it within minutes. Sometimes many viewers drop their comments supporting or denouncing the false claim.
“I don’t know the solution to this problem, I just don’t want to be exposed to any wrong information,” Prof Shamim said.
“But there must be some technological way of stopping the supply of information which is not accurate,” she said, citing the example of the filtering system of inbox mails and spam mails in email accounts.
“Experts may find a way of filtering or differentiating right from wrong information when someone abuses it in the social media by copying from its original sources.”
Still, Pinaki Bhattacharya said, the use of social media should not be restricted by the law.
So, what’s the way out?
“Social media is an open field,” the blogger said. “It is necessary for social media users to keep an open mind and have the mentality to challenge any post and check facts before sharing it.”