Muscat: Government and security agencies in Oman have heightened their efforts to monitor and respond to fake news online.
Times of Oman spoke to officials from the country’s civil and security fields to determine each sector’s methodology in dealing with online fake news.
Rumours on social media may involve false stories related to the performance of the government or government institutions. In such cases, responsibility for action lies with the Centre for Government Communications (CGC).
In an exclusive interview with Times of Oman, an official from the CGC spoke about how each government sector deals with fake news about them.
“The media and communication departments within the governmental institutions follow up and monitor circulated news about them; each institution then responds to the rumours based on a number of factors.”
“The factors that determine the methodology of response include the subject of the rumour, its prevalence and the channel in which the rumour has spread. Based on those criteria, a response is issued whether in the form of a reply, a clarification or a denial through the institution’s official accounts on social media and the various media platforms, while taking into account the response time so as not to allow room for the rumours to spread,” the official said.
The official continued: “In order to ensure that rumours do not spread, it is particularly important that the public takes news from official sources by following their accounts on social media. It is also important not to contribute to the spread of rumours by re-circulating them without verifying their validity.”
The CGC has held workshops with various government departments on how to deal with bogus news. “In November last year, the Centre organised a meeting with officials from the media and communication departments in governmental institutions on “dealing with rumours” during which the centre reviewed the staff’s experiences,” the official said.
The centre is also preparing a guide to deal with rumours which includes the best mechanisms and practices. The guide will be distributed to each of the institutions.
Major Mohammed Al Hashami, head of Information Network at the Royal Oman Police, also spoke to Times of Oman about the dangers fake news could pose for society.
“It is possible for rumours to pose a danger to public security, however, rumours mostly affect public opinion, as they lead people to question whether a piece of news is true or not and this could lead to a negative reaction within society.”
Regarding whether the Royal Oman Police has witnessed an increase in the number of fake news items being circulated on social media, Al Hashami said: “We cannot determine whether they are increasing or not, but we have noticed that certain rumours appear during some seasons or occasions more than others. If we are to assume that these rumours are initiated in another country, then the individual’s intention may be touristic or economic, whereby they circulate such rumours during these seasons in order to weaken tourism in a specific area or country.”
The authorities continue to monitor speculation spreading online.
“There is continuous surveillance by the concerned authorities who handle and analyse stories,” Al Hashami said. “If the rumour is related to traffic or any other policing area, a direct response will be issued through the official ROP channels refuting the information.”
According to Al Hashami, it is critical for the authorities to refute traffic rumours quickly so as to avoid spreading worry or confusion among the public.
“Spreading rumours regarding accidents on a vital highway in a certain season may confuse tourists or even the local community, therefore, such cases are dealt with directly,” said Hashami.
According to Al Hashami, the Sultanate regulates the circulation of content and news in accordance with the ITA and telecommunication laws.
In addition, while the Omani Penal Code does not explicitly regulate fake news, it contains provisions concerning the punishment for circulating other forms of rumours.
For instance, according to article 223 of the penal code, anyone that knowingly spreads false news of a crime that has not been committed may be imprisoned for a period of between one month and three years as well as fined up to OMR500.
The Omani penal code also regulates rumours that affect the state.
Anyone who intentionally instigates or disseminates news or statements, false or malicious rumours or broadcasts inflammatory propaganda which would undermine the prestige of the State or weaken confidence in its financial markets, or its economic and financial position shall be punished by imprisonment for a period of between three months and three years.