Muscat: The rise of social media has led to invasion of privacy and the spreading of rumours and false information, leading to discussions about how to best tackle this scourge, according to Oman’s Shura Council.
A new digital landscape means news is delivered in a click - but the same applies to false and malicious content designed to cause harm.
Salim Al Mafraji, Shura Council Representative of Bahla and Vice Head of the Media and Culture Committee, told Times of Oman that improper use of social media “has created negative issues including a lack of credibility and accuracy, invasion of privacy, and no regard for the ethics of journalism, such as when a car crash occurs. It has also led to people spreading fabricated and fake news and created fertile land for rumour-mongering. As this grows, it worries everyone, whether it be public channels or even individuals in society.
“The committee has undertaken a series of studies focused on credibility, making information readily available, and stopping the spread of rumours through the recommendation of a law regulating the acquisition and spread of information,” he added.
A spokesman at the Royal Oman Police told Times of Oman, “We urge citizens and residents not to spread fake news and rumours through social media.”
Fake news can spread about even the most serious of issues, prompting official channels to deny them.
The Royal Oman Police has in the past released statements denying fake news reports that were circulating across social media. In November, 2018, the ROP had to release a statement over rumours regarding a murder which never took place, saying “There is no truth to rumours spreading of a murder that occurred in Barka, South Al Batinah.”
In a similar incident in October, the ROP denied that a murder led to the closure of a Wadi Adai road, explaining instead that an exercise exploring police readiness was being run.
Current laws include imprisonment of no less than three months and no more than three years for “whoever wilfully incites, broadcasts, or publishes, internally or abroad, false or malicious news, data, or rumours, or broadcasts propaganda, that undermine the stature of the State or weakens the confidence in its financial markets or its economic and financial standing.”
During a recent meeting, the Committee for Media and Culture at the Shura Council invited experts from the Ministry of Information and the Omani Journalists Association to discuss the committee’s study regarding professional and ethical regulations for new media in Oman. The Shura Council has for a while now been discussing putting forward a new law to stop the circulation of such rumours across social media.
In February, Ali Al Maashani, Head of the Media and Culture Committee at the Shura Council, spoke about a new law being drafted related to regulating social media. He said: “We are not thinking of limiting a person’s ability to say their opinion ; we are only talking about the ethical implications of attacking either a private person, the country, or a group of individuals.”
Al Mafraji added, “Other recommendations were to appoint official spokespeople for public and private institutions. Finally, the committee’s focus for this year regarding ethical and professional regulations for new media is to study the current situation and identify the role of media agencies in keeping news professional.”
Dr Saqib Ali, Head of the Department of Information Systems at the College of Economics and Political Science at Sultan Qaboos University, said although social media organisations were trying to clamp down on fake news, sourcing it was like finding ‘a needle in a haystack’.
The social media organisations are trying to cut down and stop the spreading of fake news, but it is very difficult,” he told Times of Oman. “Their methods are not a hundred percent effective. Finding the source of the fake news is like finding a needle in a haystack because you don’t know where to look. There is no sourcing system for any of these platforms yet.”
“The problem with finding the source of the fake news is that it can be in any language, the pictures used for every piece of fake news are different, the language of the original piece of fake news may be different from the other pieces, how they spread this may vary from one person to the next, so it is not easy to stop the spread of fake news,” added Ali.
Elaborating on the power of social media, al Mafraji said: “Social media has allowed everyone, without exception, to connect immediately and interactively to others, and has made the user into the person who sends news. Some accounts are competing with even the most respected news platforms in the world.”