Akeed – Aya Alkhwaldeh and Dana Al Emam
In 2020, the Jordan Media Credibility Monitor “Akeed” tracked a total of 569 rumors relating to various issues and incidents, at an average of 47.4 rumors per month. This represents a significant increase in comparison to 2019, when Akeed recorded 487 rumors.
What is remarkable in Akeed’s 2020 rumor report is the high percentage of rumors regarding the health sector, about which there were 174 rumors (31% of the year’s total). Akeed attributes this to the spread of the coronavirus and the resulting misinformation about the disease, its transmission, and methods of prevention.
July 2020 saw the lowest number of rumors, with 29 or 5% of the year’s total, while March saw the highest number, with 67 rumors (nearly 12% of the year’s total).
The cumulative report sheds light on the number of rumors circulating over the course of 2020, alongside a review of the year’s most significant rumors and incidents and their subjects.
In accordance with Akeed’s methodology, a rumor is defined here as “misinformation relating to Jordanian public affairs and the general interest that has spread via digital media to reach more than approximately 5,000 people”.
In early May, Akeed delineated a new classification for rumors relating to public affairs issues, such as primary, secondary, and university education; labor unions; and decisions about official and national holidays.
Rumor sources according to their origin
Akeed utilized both qualitative and quantitative methods to examine the topics of rumors spreading among online news sites, social media networks, and media outlets. It found that 529 of the rumors in 2020 originated from within Jordan, whether via social media platforms or from news outlets. These accounted for 93% of all rumors registered throughout the year, while 40 rumors (7% of the total) originated outside Jordan.
Rumors sources according to the method of publication
Akeed found that 403 rumors, or 71% of the year's total, originated on social media platforms, whereas 160 rumors (28%) were promoted by media outlets. Meanwhile, only 6 rumors, amounting to 1% of the year’s total, originated from official sources, and were later corrected.
The most common topic was the health sector, which comprised of 174 rumors (31% of the year’s total), followed by rumors related to security issues (99 overall, or 17%). Economic and social affairs counted 83 rumors each, making up 15% of the overall total for the year for each category. In addition, there were 67 public affairs-related rumors, or 11% of the total, while the least common topic that witnessed rumors was political affairs, about which there were 63 rumors (approximately 11%).
Migration of rumors from social media to media outlets
In 2020, 42 rumors (7% overall) migrated from social media platforms to news sites.
In December, there were a variety of rumors related to the novel coronavirus and related incidents and policies. Akeed monitored 9 rumors concerning the health sector, with these revolving primarily around COVID-19 vaccines. Among these rumors were reports that coronavirus vaccines cause death or paraplegia; that they are being used to place a chip in the bodies of vaccine recipients so that they may be tracked; and that the vaccine modifies the genetic code of those who take it. Secretary-General of the Ministry of Health for Epidemiological Affairs and top coronavirus official, Dr. Wail Hayajneh, denied the validity of all these rumors in a video clip published by the Prime Ministry’s "You have the right to know" platform.
Dr. Hayajneh stated that the COVID-19 vaccines that will be used in Jordan come from trusted sources and have been registered in reliable scientific institutions after the requisite research had been conducted on them. He also said that the vaccine had been developed to eliminate the disease, not to track people; and furthermore that it does not change the body's genetic code but rather uses the human body to manufacture proteins and then antibodies so as to create an immunity to the virus in the body.
Dr. Hayajneh also denied a rumor alleging that the vaccine will come at a substantial cost and on the basis of personal connections. He clarified that the vaccine will be free for citizens and residents in Jordan, and will be distributed fairly and according to criteria determined in advance. Dr. Hayajneh also denied misinformation that the arrival of the vaccine obviates the need for precautionary measures like mask wearing. Taking the vaccine, he said, is not a substitute for mask wearing as prevention lies in both measures.
Among the rumors that were denied by security officials were those related to government lockdown measures implemented amidst the spread of the coronavirus in the first half 2020. The most prominent of these related to a statement from the Director of the Coronavirus Crisis Management Cell Brig. Gen. Mazen Al-Faraya. Some local news sites misinterpreted it as saying "that there is no comprehensive lockdown on Friday, June 5th.” Al-Faraya clarified that Friday prayers would only be permitted during certain hours, and only for those going to mosques on foot.
Among the most prominent economic rumors that social media users propagated in 2020 concerned land sales in the Petra Archaeological Park, something which authorities denied. They explained that the rumors surrounding this issue were incorrect, and blamed them for having misled public opinion and distorted the facts.
One rumor that spread in August, and which was denied by the Jordan Tourism Board, alleged that a social media celebrity had been paid large sums of money to promote tourism in Jordan. According to the rumor, this celebrity had been asked to go on a tour across the kingdom as part of the “Urdunna Janna” marketing campaign, since she has over 1 million followers on social media.
Public affairs rumors:
Among the rumors that the Ministry of Education denied was one that claimed that in the new academic year students would attend classes remotely two days a week, and in person for the other three days each week. The ministry’s Secretary-General for Administrative and Financial Affairs explained that these are only proposals and have not been approved yet.
One of the rumors from June was published by Arab media outlets concerning a Jordanian armored military vehicle allegedly found set on fire in the city of Tarhuna in Libya. This was denied by the authorities, who explained that allegations were false and reiterated Jordan’s commitment to the UN ban on the export of weapons to Libya.
The characteristics of rumors and their mechanisms of transmission
Abundance and rapid spread: rumors in 2020 were characterized by their abundance and rapid spread, as the monthly rate of rumors in 2020 increased to 47.4 rumors, in contrast to 2019 when there were approximately 40 rumors per month. While the monthly average of rumors is a large number given Akeed’s definition of a rumor, which guided this report, there were even more rumors in 2020 as a result of media outlets promoting and circulating them - to some extent- alongside social media platforms.
Connection to crises: A large number of rumors were connected to domestic crises, which is not surprising given that rumors typically emerge during emergencies. This was made clear by the spread of the coronavirus and the security and economic measures that accompanied the pandemic, along with the activation of the national defense law.
Persistent rumors: Akeed documented a phenomenon of persistent rumors and its relationship to stubborn public opinion. This phenomenon refers to rumors that persist and enjoy extended life cycles long after they have been denied multiple times and shown to be false. Even after public denials, such rumors are repeatedly reiterated in new outlets, sometimes by those with an influence on public opinion. This occurred with a rumor that the government was planning to declare a lockdown (ranging from a single week to an entire month) after the parliamentary elections that took place in October. In its persistence, it echoed the rumors that schools and universities would return to in-person education, and that the government had received money from international authorities in exchange for reporting coronavirus patients.
Live broadcasts: The emergence and promotion of some rumors was connected to the new phenomenon of live streaming on social media, in which certain activists comment live on events or try to explain them as they unfold.
Mixing between facts and opinions: In studying the qualitative features of rumors that spread in 2020, Akeed found that a number of rumors blurred the boundary between opinion and fats, and reflected a transformation of opinions into established facts that were subsequently published.
Loud minorities: What has become clear is the role of loud minorities in times of crisis or amid political events that demand clear stances from citizens. This is a global phenomenon, in which sets of activists and social media influencers take to social media in an attempt to portray their opinions as reflective of public opinion. This has helped contribute to a wider state of political and social polarization.
New populism: Akeed noted the recurrent online phenomenon of new virtual populism, something which has also been observed by numerous other studies in various regions around the world. The latter have explained how ordinary social media users attempt to acquire greater notoriety on these platforms by transmitting fake news and rumors in the form of sensational headlines. They do so in order to attract more likes and followers on social media platforms, even as they may not have political or cultural agendas.
As rumors become routine, has the conduct of Jordanians’ changed?
Global anxiety over the worsening phenomenon of lies in the digital world increases daily. The most dangerous aspect of this phenomenon is people's willingness to believe such lies, disinformation, and rumors, and to normalize them. People have sometimes even been more willing to accept and accommodate lies than they are to believe the facts.
In 2020, officials and media outlets pointed to growth in the phenomenon of rumors and lies on social media. Furthermore, despite the proliferation of rumors suggested by this report of cumulative monitoring, it remains within the average rate at which rumors are spreading globally.
Social and digital media outlets are fostering a collective willingness to consume lies and casually accept them as truth. The repetition of lies has, consequently, distorted people’s knowledge about both themselves and others. With media users becoming less tolerant and more predisposed to hatred, lies have manifested as a form of cultural and social ideology.
Several factors have contributed to the increasingly casual attitude among Jordanians with regard to media rumors and lies. Perhaps the most prominent of these is a decline of public trust, whether in public institutions or the political class, parallel to a declining trust in professional media outlets.
The weakness of public media and information infrastructures has also played an integral role in exacerbating this situation. There has been an absence of national policies to guarantee the right of citizens to access public information. This, in turn, has weakened the ability of those in charge of public affairs to respond quickly in moments of crisis and emergency, opening the door for rumors to flourish.
Steps for combating rumors
In what follows, we present three steps needed to curb rumors and disinformation, drawing on best practices from around the world that are also suitable for our local environment:
First: to eradicate news, media, and digital illiteracy by integrating media and information literacy concepts into the educational curricula of schools and universities, in addition to merging students into awareness campaigns, and protecting youth through institutions aimed at supporting them.
Second: make information publicly available to citizens in a way that guarantees the right of access to information. This right should be reinforced through effective policies around rapid official responses to rumors, filling the “information gap,” and providing outlets for public information.
Third: quality journalism, which here refers to a print, radio, television, and digital press that strives to gather, process, and present information to the public. The more professionally and effectively that press outlets work, the better equipped they will be to halt lies and rumors.