Novel 2019 Coronavirus: Online misinformation and fake news
Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr. Dzulkefly Ahmad was recently reported to have said that we were not only facing the (Novel 2019 Coronavirus) “virus”, but also the “viral” of fake news and information. The statement was issued following a viral message that claimed a prisoner had died from the coronavirus after eating a mandarin orange. Not only has the coronavirus spread like wildfire, so too has misinformation about it especially online. The fake news and misinformation of the virus come in various forms: numerous conspiracy theories; dubious health advice as well as unofficial figures of death and infected people. For example, one of the “unproven” tips allegedly from the Department of Health in the Philippines, which it later confirmed not true, claimed could prevent the disease was shared over 16,000 times on Facebook. Such is the imperfection of the so-called “information” that now travels as fast as the speed of light, but unfortunately lacks credibility and requires serious verification of its truth and authenticity from the propagators. In ascertaining and verifying information, Islam, being the complete way of life, is very particular—if not the most stringent ethical principles of all, even more so than any man-made laws—in demanding that every information received must first be checked and verified of its authenticity as stipulated in the Qur’an, Chapter 49 (al-Hujurat) verse 6.
The general ethical principle of Islam encapsulated in the well-known maxim of harmonious societal living objective is: “The fulfilment of something good and avoidance of something harmful” (jalb al-maslahah wa daf’u al-mafsadah). At times, in order to attain the objective, any foreseen possible avenues that might bring to surface any evil or harm is blocked at the outset.
Similar to cases of bribery, Islam not only prohibits outright bribery, but also to the extent of merely accepting or giving “gifts” to someone who holds position of authority with the intention that it would be reciprocated is still not allowed. Bribery, legally speaking in this country, can come in many disguised forms such as “gifts”, “entertainment privileges”, “sports facilities fees waiver”, “offset monies” and so on as stipulated in the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Act.
Unfortunately, Muslims are among the highest number of people convicted for either giving or taking bribes in the country. Likewise, in the context of socialising between the different sexes, Islam not only prohibits adultery but even prohibits close proximity between a male and a female without the presence of a third party. This is called the principle of “Sadd Dhara’i” which means to close off the means that can lead to evil. Yet again, Malay Muslims are among the highest number of those who dump their babies in the country, as a result of adultery and unwanted pregnancies. Similarly, in spreading fake news, lies and false information, or gossips, rumour-mongering, we are ahead of other races or nations, particularly our netizens. Even the Malay terms or slang words have evolved from time to time to give afresh and so-called “positive” outlook of gossiping, from “mesyuarat tingkap” to “membawang” and so on. Nevertheless, they all carry the same spirit and refer to the same activity. Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, a scholar from Zaytuna College, USA once said that: “…during those days, you need look for a partner to gossip or slander, but now with the advent of the internet and social media platforms, you can easily do it alone from your own room.”
Indeed, Islam not only prohibits the spreading of fake news, slanders, lies, or false information, but even gossips are not allowed. In regards to talking, Islam praises those who talk less and only do so out of necessity. A Prophetic tradition from Abu Hurayrah states, “God’s Messenger, may the Mercy and Blessings of God be upon him, said: ‘Whoever believes in God and the Last Day should speak a good word or remain silent. And whoever believes in God and the Last Day should show hospitality to his neighbour. And whoever believes in God and the Last Day should show hospitality to his guest.’” (Bukhari & Muslim). In another narration also from Abu Hurayrah, the Prophet warned not to simply narrate (or in the current social media context is equivalent to “forward” or “share”) whatever one hears without first verifying its truth and validity. He said: “It is enough for a man to prove himself a liar when he goes on narrating whatever he hears” (Muslim).
In conclusion, Islam prohibits any creation or dissemination of false or fake news or information. Any information must first be checked and verified before sharing it with others. The repercussions of forwarding fake news might not be necessarily felt in this world alone—be caught by the relevant authority and subsequently charged for spreading it—but also in the Hereafter, be put in the Hellfire. Indeed, Muslims then should always have in their mind the consequences of their “worldly” acts in the Hereafter before acting on anything in this temporal world.