Last Updated on 14th February 2022
Atif Rashid, UK
What is it about fake news and sensational headlines that attract so many eyeballs? Why do gossip columns and trash TV shows get high ratings? And how are news organisations and content creators exploiting this to increase viewership, sell papers and get us hooked?
Word on the street is that dishing the dirt about things heard on the grapevine is good water cooler talk.
Ok, let me back up there.
These are all idioms about gossip and hearsay. “Word on the street” means a rumour or something being informally discussed in unofficial places. “Dishing the dirt” means to reveal and spread scandalous information about someone in public. The term “grapevine” means information obtained through informal and unofficial means, usually from hearing about it second-hand and not from the original source. The word probably came from the invention of the telegraph system of communication, when thousands of miles of wires had to be connected to poles at regular intervals – which resembled the strings of a grapevine. Rumours were often spread through telegraph lines during the American Civil War, hence was coined the term “grapevine”. All this makes for good “water cooler talk”, which refers to the non-work-related chat that goes on in the office when workers gather together for a water break.
Fast forward more than a century since the telegraph and we have fake news, gossip, and rumours spreading faster than wildfire. It makes popular TV shows (think Jeremey Kyle, Love Island, Big Brother, Gossip Girls, the list is endless), sells countless newspapers, gives people something to talk about and still doesn’t quite quench the thirst of people to hear, chat and discuss details of other people’s personal lives, and even make things up.
One incident to illustrate how low people will go is narrated by the Imam of the London Mosque, Ataul Mujeeb Rashed Sahib. He says his father, Maulana Abul Ata Jalandhrira once met Shorish Kashmiri, the editor of the Chatan Weekly newspaper in around 1970.
Jalandhri Sahibra was the editor of Al Furqan, a Jamaat magazine. Together, father and son went to acquire printing paper from Lahore. They arrived at Urdu Bazar, the largest paper market in the Punjab. The owner of the shop, who was a former pupil of Jalandhri Sahib, said he would introduce him to Shorish Sahib with whom he had had frequent exchanges in his magazines. By chance, Shorish Sahib was also coming there to buy paper.
Despite having written responses to each other in their magazines, they were meeting for the first time in person. After some general chat, Jalandhri Sahib raised an issue with Shorish Sahib who had written in his magazine that Ahmadis created a new kalima. The proof Shorish Sahib presented for this was that a booklet of the Jamaat titled “Africa Speaks” had the picture of a Nigerian Ahmadi mosque above which was written the kalima. Shorish Sahib had changed “Muhammad” with “Ahmad” in the picture to make it look like the new “Ahmadi kalima” was “Ahmad is the Messenger of Allah”, God forbid. He put it on the front page of Chatan Weekly with the headline: “Hunter trapped in its own ploy”.
In response, Al Furqan published the original unaltered picture with a rebuttal to the allegation that Ahmadi Muslims have changed the kalima.
Jalandhri Sahibra asked Shorish Sahib if he still believed Ahmadis had a new kalima? At this, Shorish Sahib cackled and said:
“Leave these matters, after all we have to sell our newspaper somehow.”
At the same time, he said: “This is off the record. If you publish this statement I will deny it.”
Seeing his dishonesty, falsehood and stubbornness, says Ata-ul-Mujeeb Rashed Sahib, “We were left in shock.”
Current day tabloids would perhaps be proud of such a response. But it highlights how deceptive tactics and outright lies have long been used to try to sell papers. And it works. In the UK there is a regulation of newspapers and the media, but often tabloids find taking the hit of a fine and making a small correction is worth it, considering the amount of paper it would shift. They also have lawyers who trawl over every word to minimise the risk of libel – minimise, not eradicate. If the risk is low, it’s worth taking a chance, seems to be the approach. Also, suing for libel is a long, costly process.
With the team of lawyers, newspapers have, who would be bold enough to take them on?
Meghan Markle took them on and won a case against the media company Associated Newspapers, which owns several tabloids. Judges agreed that her privacy was invaded by publishing a letter she wrote to her father.
“For these outlets, it’s a game,” she said in a statement. “For me and so many others, it’s real life, real relationships, and very real sadness. The damage they have done and continue to do runs deep.”
People read tabloid newspapers and watch “trash TV” despite knowing how absurd and salacious its stories are. But it’s exactly these things that keep people hooked, despite being aware of their shallowness. Who cares if a celebrity stepped in a puddle, or a politician was looking sloppy, or a football player changed his hairstyle? Well, people actually do care.
People gossip because it’s a type of human bonding and allows for the exchange of information. It gives us something to share and talk about. And speaking about others behind their backs is the easiest thing to do.
Evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar argued that as we are more social than our ancestors (especially with modern communications and large social networks) discussion of social and personal issues helps maintain the types of societies that currently exist.
One analysis in 2019 about gossip, published in the Social Psychological and Personality Science journal, found that most of the time gossip is pretty neutral and people spoke about general interest topics.
When you hear gossip, there is more activity in the prefrontal cortex of your brain, according to a study in 2015. That area of the brain has a lot of important cognitive functions including planning, decision-making, problem-solving and self-control. (The ugly truth: negative gossip about celebrities and positive gossip about self entertain people in different ways, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25580932/)
The study also discovered that participants were amused or entertained by hearing negative or scandalous stories about celebrities. Unsurprisingly, they were happier to hear positive gossip about themselves and annoyed at hearing negative gossip about themselves than celebrities or best friends.
The Washington Post asked some “highbrow” people who thought trash TV was “awful,” “terrible,” and “just downright bad”, why they kept watching it. They said they felt quite bad about watching it but couldn’t stop themselves despite feeling “ashamed, almost unclean”. Some said they couldn’t control it and it’s like not being able to look away from a car crash.
Another reason people can’t stop consuming these types of stories and TV is that it makes us feel good about ourselves. It makes us feel as though we’re better than the characters because as humans we’re prone to making moral judgments. Engaging in this form of social comparison might explain why people watch shows like Jeremy Kyle, Big Brother, etc.
People like to gossip and spread rumours because it gives them a sense of empowerment. Conversely, it can backfire as it can make you seem like an untrustworthy person, according to psychotherapist Dr Julia Breur.
Another psychiatrist Dr Ned Hallowell told Psychology Today that there is an element of sadism involved where people derive pleasure from knowing, seeing or hearing that someone else is in pain and they themselves are not. Dr Breur explained that anxiety or uncertainty can be a cause of spreading rumours too, as when you don’t know how or why things are happening, rumours are more likely.
It’s much the same for tabloids. They have to sell their papers and without gossip columns and stories, would The Sun and Daily Mail be among the most popular newspapers in Britain? These stories sell and people love reading about them despite knowing that it is yellow journalism. Both tabloids may even be the most criticised and hated newspapers in Britain; it doesn’t matter, people will still read it.
A study by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2018 found fake news spreads much faster than real news on Twitter. The reason? People like new and novel things and are more likely to share and spread them.
In the UK, the Politics4All Twitter account used to share political stories and beefed up headlines to make them more shocking. They would take articles from reputable journalists, pick out the most shocking line and post that with siren emojis and the word “BREAKING” to grab attention. And grab the attention they did. They were followed by government ministers and gained 400K followers in a short space of time. The person behind the account? A 17-year-old student. Eventually, Twitter shut it down for “violating” rules on “platform manipulation and spam”.
The MIT researchers noted that people respond to false news more with surprise and disgust, while true stories were met with sadness, anticipation and trust.
Fake news, gossip and rumours are damaging to society. It makes people believe conspiracy theories, avoid vaccinations, mistrust officials, cause disorder, unrest and chaos. The attack on Capitol Hill in January 2021 didn’t happen without a slew of conspiracy theories having been spread beforehand. This is why international organisations, state regulatory bodies and academic institutions are trying to repel the flood of fake news.
Islam cuts at the root of gossip, scandal-mongering and spreading false information. The Holy Quran advises:
“O ye who believe! if an unrighteous person brings you any news, investigate it fully, lest you harm a people in ignorance, and then be repentant for what you have done.” (Surah al-Hujurat, Ch. 49: V.7)
Rumours are rife in times of war, and Muslims after the Victory of Mecca were facing threats from the Byzantine and Persian Empires, as well as indigenous Arab tribes. This verse warns Muslims not to take information at face value, especially if presented by questionable sources.
The Holy Quran further gives instructions on social etiquette:
“O ye who believe! avoid much suspicion; for suspicion in some cases is a sin. And spy not, neither backbite one another. Would any of you like to eat the flesh of his brother who is dead? Certainly you would loathe it. And fear Allah, surely, Allah is Oft-Returning with compassion and is Merciful.” (Surah al-Hujurat, Ch. 49: V.13)
The Quran condemns the “backbiter, one who goes about slandering”. (Surah al-Qalam, Ch.68: V.12) Essentially speaking, gossip is backbiting – speaking ill of others behind their backs.
Prophet Muhammadsa said:
“It is enough of a lie for a man that he narrates everything he hears”. (Sahih Muslim)
He also advised:
“Hearing is not like seeing.” (Musnad Ahmad bin Hanbal)
Regarding the accusation that was created by the hypocrites against Hazrat Aishara, blaming her for having an illicit relationship, the Quran said:
“Why did not the believing men and believing women, when you heard of it, think well of their own people, and say, ‘This is a manifest lie?’” (Surah an-Nur, Ch.24: V.12)
Islam greatly promotes thinking of and wishing others well. That is why Muslims are encouraged to pray for each other and stand next to each other in prayer. This promotes unity and harmony. Giving people the benefit of doubt is also recommended as the Muslim adage goes: “If a friend among your friends errs, make seventy excuses for him. If your hearts are unable to do this, then know that the shortcoming is in your own selves.”
Ill thinking is so dangerous that it can lead up to destroying one’s faith. The Promised Messiahas said:
“The habit of thinking ill is a sore affliction which consumes faith as quickly as blazing fire consumes tinder.” (Al Wasiyyat, p. 26, (footnote))
He also said:
“I tell you truly that the habit of thinking ill of others is a great affliction which destroys a person’s faith, flings him far away from the truth and converts his friends into enemies. In order to acquire the qualities of the righteous, it is necessary that a person should altogether shun the habit of thinking ill of others, and should he happen to fall into that attitude concerning someone else, he should seek forgiveness repeatedly and should supplicate to God Almighty that he may be safeguarded against such sinfulness and the consequences that flow from it. This habit should not be underrated. It is a dangerous disease which destroys a person very quickly.” (Malfuzat, Vol. II, p. 107)
Gossip, rumour, slander and false reports largely stem from ill thinking and promote the same. If we can remove this one trait from society, then surely a lot of other issues may be solved as well – from family lives to societal, to national and international realms.