Fake social media pages cause a stir in Egypt

There are fake accounts for practically all high-ranking officials and institutions in Egypt.
Sunday 27/05/2018
Fake news. An Egyptian man checks his smartphone in Cairo.         (AFP)
Fake news. An Egyptian man checks his smartphone in Cairo. (AFP)

Fake social media pages and accounts ascribed to top government officials are causing problems in Egypt. Because of the high volume of fake news and false official “decisions” they spew, the pages are driving a wedge between citizens and state institutions.

The government has been criticised for not closing fake pages. The government’s inaction has given fake accounts a legitimacy among followers, which can number in the hundreds of thousands. The fake page of Education Minister Mahmoud Abo el-Nasr, for example, has 80,000 followers compared to the 55,000 following his official page.

There are fake accounts for practically all high-ranking officials and institutions in Egypt. There is a fake account of the Presidency of the Republic, which specialises in spreading rumours about expected actions and decisions by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. The news is fake but that does not stop the opposition from using it to severely criticise the regime.

Taking advantage of the obsession many Egyptians have with social media, fake accounts were established targeting officials. Authorities have not moved against those accounts and the number of followers of the accounts has increased.

Hany Abo Rida, president of the Egyptian Football Association fell victim to a posting on a fake account, which claimed Abo Rida would bar star player Mohamed Salah from the national team’s appearance in the FIFA World Cup “for lack of patriotism.”

Observers said fake accounts were linked to developing political and social events. Social media users quickly react to any event and post on the internet about them regularly. Many are obviously aware they are not interacting with the person purportedly attached to the account but still become angry while others jeer.

The observers said the absence of official reaction to fake accounts encourages people to continue even though the fake postings can lead to hard-to-control situations for Egyptian authorities.

The problem is compounded when online news sites report “news” from fake accounts without confirming allegations. Many news consumers believe what they are reading is accurate because it comes from known news sources.

Most officials in Egypt do not have official social media accounts and many are indifferent to the phenomena of social media and do not quickly correct misinformation. Fake accounts can easily be taken as legitimate ones when there are no other official accounts.

The government had to officially deny declarations that appeared on the fake account bearing the name of Minister of the Public Enterprise Khaled Badawy that alleged the selling of public sector companies. The extent of the government’s reaction was a simple statement saying Badawy “does not own any social media account in the first place and someone took advantage of that and pasted his (Badawy’s) picture on a fake account and spread these rumours.”

Information safety expert Walid Hajjaj said the biggest danger of fake accounts is that their creators closely imitate personal characteristics and ideas of the officials they are forging. He said fake accounts of high-profile officials anywhere in the world attract followers and acquire credibility when government leaders do not communicate effectively with the public. Such situations feed political discord and distrust of the government.

Hardly a week passes by without a news release by the Egyptian Cabinet’s Information and Decision Support Centre denying news or information released through fake accounts under the names of ministers and other high-ranking officials.

Egyptian authorities quickly close social media pages that promote religious extremism, violence and terrorism but hardly lift a finger against accounts spreading rumours and fake news. Perhaps the government reaps some advantage from ignoring such situations.

Hajjaj said: “The fake pages of officials contain ideological terrorism and there is an unjustified official slackness in going after them legally. They can easily be shut down when an official institution presents documented proof that these accounts are fake.”