Several years ago, even before the two revolutions, I was in a cab in Heliopolis minding my own business when the cab driver said something that translates to, “This is fishy!” “What?” I asked anxiously. He pointed to a man carrying a carton of bottled water walking out of a store. “That’s the fifth person I see in the last few hours buying bottled water,” he exclaimed.
By the time I arrived home, the rumour that water across Egypt had somehow gotten contaminated and had become undrinkable had reached its desired heights. On public television, a statement from the minister concerned calmed the uneasy nerves, refuted the rumour, and curbed it from spreading further.
The rumour could have emerged out of a slip of a tongue, a misunderstanding, or a misinterpretation. A wacky story, true, but realistic enough for the gullible to buy into it and be swayed to go out and needlessly buy bottled water. It could have also been a premeditated ploy by a water distillery manufacturer. I bet many water companies had a surge in sales that day. These are all hypothetical causes; no one really knows how this story came about.
This happens around the world, too; it is not limited to Egypt. According to the online psychology site, Psychology Today, when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, water was not the only thing that flooded the city: Sharks infested the water! Terrorists planted bombs in the levees! Murdered babies and piles of corpses filled the Superdome!
Let’s turn our attention back to Egypt. After president Mubarak stepped down, rumours had him go off food, refuse medication, be in a coma, die, fly to Germany to get treatment, fly to Saudi and the Emirates to export his money, and die again, all in a matter of two weeks.
Rumours had Mrs. Mubarak flee to London with 90 money-filled suitcases. It also had her sell unique Egyptian artifacts and treasures. As for the money that the family looted, it kept growing by the hour until it reached an astronomical figure that the normal Egyptian couldn’t fathom—70 billion. Ordinary Egyptians asked, “What does 70 billion mean exactly?"
In today’s environment similar stories hit the Egyptian scene, their ramifications steadily compounding the anxiety already existing on the streets. A locust plague is about to hit Egypt, rice is unavailable, fertilisers are out of stock, Gamal Mubarak is running for presidency in 2018, and parliamentarian Mohamed Anwar El-Sadat and the EU ambassador discuss how to stop El-Sisi running again are all bizarre rumours that spread like wildfires.
Rumours of tax hikes and devaluation of the pound send the stock market into a nosedive. Rumours of the government selling Thasos Island to the Greeks could have instigated another campaign such as #EgyptIsNotForSale.
When a rumour that the new church-building law prohibits having crosses atop churches, the consequences could have been disastrous. Even after Minister Ghada Waly wrote on her Facebook page that under no circumstances was the concept of no crosses on churches discussed during the law deliberations, the story did not subside. We may never know who started the rumour, but we know that had it not been dealt with, we could have seen Copts, heaven forbid, reacting unwisely, asking human rights groups and the West in general to intervene, turning it into an international issue.
We do know who created the story of a Saudi traveler beaten in front of his wife and children at Cairo airport. Homoud Al-Shamri, a Saudi religious personality with 43,000 Twitter followers, is the owner of the story and until today he goes by his original story. However, the Saudi ambassador to Egypt, Ahmed Qattan, denied the whole incident. This while, according to Ossama Kamal in AlQahira 360, the video utilised was from an incident at Kuwait airport that took place three months ago.
And we do know what such a story can do: Saudis may opt not to come to Egypt anymore, shrinking the tourism industry even further, and Saudis may mistreat Egyptians travelling to and from Saudi creating an unnecessary rift between both countries and putting further pressure on the Egyptian government. All these matters may be seen as good things by some.
Wars on Egypt take different shapes or forms. First came the vicious attacks on civilians and the security apparatus alike, bombs exploding in front of government buildings and embassies and amongst civilians, and execution style killings of soldiers. Then came the explosions of power towers and later arson attempts on buildings in the middle of Cairo. Now we have a new line of innovative practices: instilling fear in Egyptians, be it of shortages of goods or of impending crises. This is realised through rumours.
Spreading rumours is another method of warfare, another extremely effective means of destruction, its ripple effect horrendous.
How should Egypt authorities deal with such rumours? They must be proactive versus reactive. Think about it. All the above stories have damaging repercussions, if they are not dealt with fast enough. This is easier said than done I know, but being alert and ready to deal with a rumour the moment it begins is fundamental. At the same time, officials can halt the dissemination of such rumours by being transparent, accurate, and proactive.
How should you as an Egyptian deal with such rumours? You must ask yourself if such a rumour is possible or highly unlikely before you contemplate repeating it. More importantly, this practice utilises you, yourself, in propagating these rumours further.
In an environment of uncertainty, rumours go haywire. Defeat the uncertainty by going to trustworthy sources for verification. If you are on Facebook and Twitter, then you can google the topic to see if a credible publication, such as Ahram Online for instance, speaks about it, which would prove its authenticity.
The worst type of rumour is the bogey one, the one that plays on your fears and doubts. If a group collectively is worried and anxious, it is easier to start a rumour amongst it. You must rest assured that Egypt is in good hands and those in charge are doing their best. This will alleviate worry and anxiety.
You must also be not very accepting and easily susceptible or gullible to such rumours. You must ignore chitchat and focus on reality.
The more one hears a rumour the more one is inclined to believe it, so nip the rumour in the bud. Don’t say, “Please forward this to everyone in your group,” and don’t repeat it unless you are certain beyond a shadow of a doubt that it is true.
Some stories rely on a grain of truth, but that truth is embellished, distorted, and magnified; it is up you to decipher the right from the wrong and the accurate from the inaccurate.