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Why we need to fight both fake news and social media ego

Even Islamic traditions command us to verify the context of fake news.

Even Islamic traditions command us to verify the context of fake news.

Sometimes a tweet can go viral through sheer luck, on other occasions, it is through hard work and careful consideration of contributing factors. I’d like to talk you through the latter, and some interesting points of learning – namely the need to support social media activism that can counter fake news and to let go of any ego in the process.


Some time ago, on the evening of 30th November, I discovered a tweet that linked to an awful news story in the US; a 6-year-old boy of Muslim parents was reported to the police by his teacher. The news channel hadn’t actually tweeted it out yet themselves – but it was discovered by Richard Silverstein (@richards1052) on their site who tweeted it. The boy has Down’s syndrome, severe learning difficulties and, as his father said in the news clip, he requires 24/7 care. Regardless of this, his teacher at the time claims he had said “boom” and “Allah.” She drew her own conclusions and believed him to be a terrorist, so she called the police. The father reiterated in the news clip that the boy is unable to speak, at all.

I was outraged by this story, the ignorance, the hatred and the lack of care shown towards the child upset me. But I realised the story would gain little attention because a day or so earlier President Trump of the United States had caused a media storm through his endorsement of anti-Muslim ‘fake news’ by far-right group Britain First.

One of these tweets purported to show a ‘Muslim migrant’ beating up a disabled Dutch boy. It was clearly designed to stir up resentment towards Muslims. It soon turned out the aggressor was neither a Muslim nor a migrant, it was a false narrative.  And yet here was a real news story about a disabled American boy, of Muslim migrant parents, having faced shocking discrimination.

I saw a direct correlation here and the irony was clear. His treatment was emblematic of the real consequences of fake news and the mainstreaming of anti-Muslim sentiment, which leaders like Trump have been spearheading. Of course we won’t find Trump highlighting this story of a Muslim victim in Trump’s America, because it doesn’t suit his agenda. So I quickly put into work ways to make the news story and this message go as viral as possible, because the most effective way of challenging fake news is to highlight real news and real facts.

Making real news go viral

As I was in the Middle East at the time, I realised I had an advantage if I was to tweet this as soon as possible and tag in contacts based in the Western Hemisphere. I structured the tweet appropriately for readers to digest the information quickly – because in today’s climate of fast-paced news all you have are a few fleeting moments to grab your reader’s attention.

I also put my main point at the top like a headline; that the treatment this boy received was a result of the current trajectory of anti-Muslim dehumanising narratives. I wanted this to be a warning signal about where our society is heading, so that people felt motivated enough to call for social change. I then contacted close allies to share my tweet and the information.

Some tweeted the news as their own (but still tagged me in) so I soon stressed the importance to others of sharing my tweet directly as:

  1. It won’t dilute the key message;
  2. It makes it easier to track and gain traction in order to spread virally and;
  3. I paid homage to the original tweeter and it’s ethical to give people credit for their efforts.

Alhumdulilah at the point of publishing this piece the tweet has had just short of 7k retweets and over 9.5k+ likes, mostly within 48 hours. The story has been covered globally through Twitter and also other news sources.

Social media and the ego

There is, however, a point of disappointment. Immediately after posting the tweet I decided to strategically tag in Muslims with large social media followings that are based in the US or who comment largely on US matters.

I was many hours ahead of others in the US that were likely to miss the story as it was posted overnight there, so I gave them a heads up. You can see some of their names below the original tweet. I had hoped they’d be able to retweet my content and help boost it on its journey to reach as many people as possible.

Yet not a single person or account did so.

I was astonished to find most decided to post the content as their own, some even linked to a secondary news outlet that picked up the story much later on.

Some people have commented on this odd twitter behaviour, particularly the racial and feminist politics of why some of the Muslim women seemingly ignored another Muslim woman’s activism and linked to men who had posted the content as their own.

I’m sure people have their reasons. But the point remains (and is important if you engage in any form of social media activism) if someone has notified you of important content and if their content is starting to get rapidly circulated, try to support the cause. Share their content directly or at least don’t post links away from it.

Reposting trending content as your own or linking to other sources who post the same content at a far later time derails the process in getting a specific tweet with a specific message to go viral. What it does is ‘reinvent the wheel’; it ignores and erases the work of original tweeters or any direct links to them.

The chain of information is broken up, disrupted and it becomes difficult to trace. This is a useful tactic for fake news, but not for real news, nor for tweets that have an important message to get out. In this instance it was crucial to point out where anti-Muslim dehumanising narratives are taking us, which is important in the context of Trump’s contribution to anti-Muslim hostility.

This core message was lost in many of the newer tweets that were published.

The next day another story came out also highlighting an instance of anti-Muslim prejudice. A Muslim woman who wore a headscarf was told to take it off in order to buy food at McDonald’s. This was in North London, one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities, which incidentally also has a Muslim mayor. It’s a reminder to activists who fight xenophobia, misogyny and Islamophobia that we mustn’t get complacent.

Yet again I saw people with large Twitter followings erase the original Muslim female poster, and in turn erase much of the story behind the activism. The video was posted as new content on their Twitter timelines with their own commentary. I’m glad people feel strongly about the issue but we need to do more than just condemn these outrageous examples of injustice. We need to connect the dots if we are to affect change.

Once more there was no homage paid to the original Muslim woman who posted it, and so the fine details of why she posted the video, or even a link to the original thread that had information about the action being taken, was totally missing. This online behaviour risks seriously hampering the spread of existing content and the activism behind it.

This is not a criticism of people who post comments on trending videos or content. This is a reminder to those with large followings who post content as their own, who remove context or any acknowledgment to the original tweeter, that what they do is self-centred and self-serving.

Activism shouldn’t be about obsessing over your own social media clout so you look like a maven or a social media influencer.

Because this potentially jeopardises the reach of information over the pursuance of individual ego, which becomes a roadblock to any momentum being gathered.

In the case of my tweet about the 6-year-old boy, my overall goal was reached and I believe the tweet has had impact – Alhumdulilah. The story got the attention I was desperate for it to get. What was buried and may never have to come to light captured thousands of people’s interest.

Unfortunately though, in the process I picked up on some unprincipled behaviour where others missed the most important point; that Islamophobia doesn’t just come from nowhere.

People are conditioned into Islamophobia and the actions of the US President and later his press secretary gives legitimacy to the airing of anti-Muslim views and discrimination towards innocent, law abiding citizens – even little children.

We should be as united as possible to counter the menace of anti-Muslim prejudice, as well as other forms of xenophobia and hate, but how can we collectively have impact if we are all in it for ourselves? How can we share our platforms so that we can raise the voices of those who aim to speak truth to power, but who have smaller social media followings.

I’ve learnt social media activism can only be successful if we remember to keep our egos in check. It’s easy to get side-lined and lose sight of the bigger picture, but we should support grass-roots activism when we see it, rather than concern ourselves with getting engagements directly with our own twitter content.

It’s simply not ethical to appropriate other people’s content or pay no tribute to their hard work. Again, these are the methods of the fake news industry that repackages and recontextualizes footage and content, strips it of any original source and presents it with a right-wing spin.

Those of us who campaign against Islamophobia mustn’t be guilty of the same methods because we can strive to be better than that and to fight injustice with honesty.

And to be honest, it’s clear Allah hates fake news; the Quran calls for us to verify information and investigate further (49:6). It really is our duty to pay heed to this.  Authenticity and a clear chain of narrators are highly valued within Islamic culture. You only need to look at the study of the Hadiths and the preservation of the Quran to understand the importance of attributing content to the primary source.

My advice is always to drop any selfishness; collaboration over competition is important. Let the glory be to God and we should concentrate on trying to be in his service – that is to act with integrity and be on the side of truth and justice for all of humanity.

by Mariam Sheikh Hakim


Special thanks go to all those who assisted in sharing the tweet especially:

@sunnysingh_n6, @julianbond12, @AkeelaAhmed, @AbdulAzim, @mrjammyjamjar3, @auntyG, @Moazzam_Begg, @s_saeen @msalimkassam @amyharvard_

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