The Chemistry of Rumors in Yemen: The News and War… The News in War

This post is also available in: العربية (Arabic)

Despite the Yemeni proverb “He who has eaten a lie for lunch will not dine with it”, reality has shown that lies live a long life in a country where credibility has declined and people are eager to consume rumors for entertainment. But contentment is the ultimate price paid for this entertainment.

How many times have people’s rumors killed an artist or literary figure?[1] Denial soon follows from that person’s relatives, or they release an audio or video recording to prove that they, indeed, are not dead, thereby exposing those who wish they were.

And how many times has there been talk of a child’s disappearance under mysterious circumstances, only for them to resurface soon afterwards in entirely different circumstances?

And how many times has the news of a deadly and scandalous crime that shook people to the core and affected their confidence in their country’s protection of the rights of their , later been revealed to be lies?

This does not mean that all is well, that people don’t get killed and atrocious crimes are not committed. But false and manipulated news occupies a great deal of interest for people, while true and painful events go unnoticed.

People are usually quick to react to news that affects them deeply, especially if it’s news of a heinous crime that threatens collective morality or national loyalty. This usually leads to a response on a greater scale that quickly reveals quite differing facts.

News bulletins

The reality of journalism today in Yemen, or as it concerns Yemeni people as a whole, is reflected by news bulletins that dictate the rhythm of people’s absorption of current news and events impacting Yemenis inside and outside the country. These news bubbles can be found everywhere in the world of journalism, and they are sucking the life out of it. The same can be found with online media today where a story is not investigated, proven, questioned or contradicted. News is instead meant to be released quickly, with large numbers of stories, and then commented on by the public who quickly move on to more current news. A reporter’s assessment of an event’s significance is based on many requirements, including the event’s relation to the current politics. Politics, in this case, plays another tricky factor.

In countries experiencing wars and civil conflicts, the press faces the increasing challenge of resisting local and regional polarization to maintain professional standards, alongside financial profit and tremendous technical progress.

The technological advancements in the communication’s world have made every virtual site a source of news and a creator of media content. In the past, people had access to the news in markets and certain gatherings, which were relatively limited spaces. But cyberspace is an open market making every and any product and commodity available to the public.

This progress, which initially elevated the status of the media industry in terms of its technical capabilities, has also placed it in a constant race for relevance and survival. Some news outlets have terminated their print releases in favor of electronic form. The front cover of the American newspaper Express, a The Washington Post publication, shows the desperate state in which international news finds itself today. The headline reads ‘Hope you enjoy your stinkin’ phones’, thereby announcing that the paper publication would be terminated.

As for Yemen, the press in this country has been dealt a painful blow. This is simply because it is an easy target for every person seeking power and dominance. Regional and international reports point to the tragic reality of journalism in Yemen and lists the multiple serious violations that journalists are exposed to.[2]

The issue is not limited to infringing on the rights of this or that newspaper, but rather the ethics of journalism itself as well as the concept of news production. News during war is dominated by propaganda and rumor, because it does not result from a legitimate news making process that upholds the standards of journalism, with obligations and ethical duties. Instead of being presented with news, readers find themselves flooded with fake news that gets worse when institutions are absent.

All these rumors are not without purpose: there’s a reason for publishing and promoting them, especially in Yemen’s current political climate. Often ‘news’ is used as a weapon against an opponent, to confuse and distract. The news becomes a weapon in the context of war as media employs methods to release propaganda, counter-propaganda and lies.

Artwork by Maha Al-Omari

War and generating rumors

There is no single factor that leads to the spread of fake news and rumors. But currently there are a number of intersecting technical and security factors, as well as means of communication, some of which are privately owned and biased. This in addition to the fact that, as David Colon[3] points out, propaganda is a foundation of and undemocratic systems. Currently we face the Yemeni state’s legacy of propaganda practices and rumors.

“War is hell”, states William Sherman, a General in the Union Army during the American Civil War. To Zuhayr bin Abi Sulma, war is a “disgrace”, and to the wise Yemeni elder Ali Weld Zayed, it is “an execuation, a fine and a regret.[4] It also carries another moral dimension that brings with it opposition to ethics. For lies, for instance, are the opposite of truth. And with the outbreak of war “ethics become irrelevant, and the military replaces it as it becomes necessary to achieve victory”[5].

In the midst of Yemen’s current war, a certain security environment has been created that stimulates and facilitates the spread of rumors. In terms of security, there is a deterioration that is embodied in the surge of both rights violations and crime rate.[6]

Thus, battle takes many forms, including a verbal battle whose weapon is language. This battle launches from familiar frequented sites, such as criminal incidents or news related to life and death. But then it moves past the news to manufacture a complete story within the context of the war. This makes the news a weapon of war in its broad definition, as it is used to provoke anxiety, uncertainty, to spread terror in the masses and also disturb the general consensus as it relates to the political fabric of society, such as nationality, the homeland and the political system.

The conditions that facilitate the reception of rumors

Daily life conditions in Yemen, in light of people’s lack of all forms of safety, make them susceptible to absorbing a high number of rumors and false news. It also makes it much more likely for them to believe information that has no credible sources or references to support them. Credible news are usually followed by sources and references for the sake of reliability. But as long as the recipients have developed a psychological barrier as a result of the abuse they have experienced, and as long as they continue to pledge alliance to some group that calls for the destruction of another, then any news that comes from the opposite source will be deemed false and mere propaganda and used as a tool in war.

Perhaps the most accurate description of this situation is from Ibn Khaldun:

“The (writing of history) requires numerous sources and much varied knowledge. It also requires a good speculative mind and thoroughness, which leads the historian to the truth and keeps him from slips and errors. If he trusts historical information in its plain transmitted form and has no clear knowledge of the principles resulting from custom, the fundamental facts of politics, the nature of civilization, or the conditions governing human social organization, and if, furthermore, he does not evaluate remote or ancient material through comparison with near or contemporary material, he often cannot avoid stumbling and slipping and deviating from the path of truth.”[7]

Another factor outside war that facilitates the spread and consumption of rumors is people’s desire for entertainment without scrutiny and criticism of the source. Popular culture renders people willing to believe shocking news without questioning its credibility. This all falls under the saying “Where there’s smoke there’s fire”. Abdullah al-Baradouni has also discussed the spread of false stories and popular common tales among Yemenis.[8]

Since war has been theorized, however, rumors and propaganda lie at the heart of this violent act. But rumors have roots that go further than war in its administrative practices and in a system that lacks transparency, democracy and that distracts people from its flaws with publicity and rumors.

Historical review: Rumor as a tool of practice for the Yemeni government

The modern political system arose in the two region’s of Yemen after the Second World War at a moment when propaganda had become a vital function of the modern state. The establishment of the Yemeni state in its early stages was accompanied by an increase in its ability to address the public through a strengthening of radio broadcasting and the introduction of television in the 1970s. The two regimes rivaled each other in ideology and their conflict often reached armed confrontations, which led them to employ propaganda to attack and counter one another. Some of the vocabulary used in such propaganda were reactionary and imperialist on the one hand, and communist on the other.

Political rumors in general were aimed at destroying the identity and symbol of the opponent by religiously incriminating him for his belonging to an unconventional and unacceptable political or economic group, such as communism. So we find Yemeni journalists and authors, such as Saleh al-Dahan, who published stories addressing such accusations, as he did with his collection of short stories You Are A Communist, published in 1957 and later republished in 1980. Or they would spread rumors accusing their opponent of immoral acts that fall outside Yemeni customs and traditions. The most famous of such rumors was in the form of a published picture of two French girls lying dead near the bodies of former President al-Hamdi and his brother following their assassination. And more recently we find charges against the sons of  Sheikh Abdullah bin Husayn bin Nasser al-Ahmar, accusing them of raping women in the streets of Sana’a.

Some political rumors circulate among the people, repeated as though they are truths, until sudden events reveal them as nothing more than political lies to cheat the public. We can recall such a purely political rumor from the past that was initiated to enable the political system at the time to hold on to power. The rumor stated that Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar and Ali Abdullah Saleh were half-brothers. However, 2011 did away with the political conflict and this rumor entirely.

There are also other rumors that supply the people’s need for magic and mystery, especially as it pertains to their heroes. There was the rumor, for example, of the killing of Abd al-Fattah Ismail that left the people hopeful that he had survived. Neither time nor physical evidence has been capable of laying this rumor to rest.

Some rumors have had a long lifespan despite being logically impossible to realize, such as lending Yemen to the World Bank in the era of al-Hamdi or the rumor that Saudi Arabia borrowed grain from Yemen during the reign of the Imam. The truth is that Yemen lived off of the surplus of revenues brought in by expatriates thanks to the oil boom during the rule of President al-Hamdi,[9] and the country had needed every rial to develop and grow.

Artwork by Maha Al-Omari

The death of journalism and the role of media in spreading rumors

There are two related phenomena concerning the press in Yemen. The first is the press taking a crushing blow due to the restrictions on journalism, the closing down of newspapers, and the displacement of a large number of journalists outside and inside the country. Consequently, the paper-based newspaper establishment has collapsed and gone from the tangible to the virtual space. And this is where the second phenomenon takes place, which is the overloading of the virtual space with a large number of news sites; according to one search engine, they number 128 .

The newspaper has transitioned from a physical location with a headquarters and an editorial board, to a virtual space with locations managed and sometimes operated by one person. This has allowed the profession to be free from its previous restrictions and enabled it to employ its tools and capacity to satisfy the polarized market and attack its opponents. Journalists have become people who benefit from the current situation, and no longer people who investigate and report news objectively. These journalists provide a biased news coverage, using divisive and extreme language that contains a surplus of adjectives and descriptions but an absence of true journalism.

The war by its very nature has displaced journalists and replaced them with war correspondents. The news sources have become so limited that you would find the same, or very similar, news repeated on several sites. In truth, these news sites are desperately trying to fill the space on their pages, often driven by editorial laziness that leads to re-publishing news taken from other sources, without proofreading the language, spelling, dates and sources.

It is true that there are exceptions, with serious journalism that strives to provide quality media content that goes beyond the news dimension to research and produce investigative journalism. They look at the credibility of their sources before publishing the news and work to expose fake news. But such journalism has become rare in today’s massive virtual world of news.

The fragility of the press in Yemen

The specialized press in Yemen has yet to reach maturity, because of its recent inception.[10] Journalists continue their work on more general content, without specializing in anything specific that would make them experts in certain areas and allow them to provide more accurate information or refute inaccuracies.

There was news, for instance, of enormous Yemeni oil wealth estimated at billions of barrels, published without examining the source of the information or comparing it to oil reserves in neighboring countries. It became clear after a little research that the rumor went on to be spread internationally without any scientific evidence to support it or reliable source.[11]

The genius of the rumor

It is also important to return to the nature of the rumor itself. The rumor seems to have an element of genius in itself that separates it from a regular joke, enabling it to spread quickly and unquestionably among people without any scrutiny of its logic, credibility or source. It is accepted and traded without questions being asked. Rumors are profitable; they are created and elaborated on in terms of their discourse, depth and the timing of their release, making them more efficient among certain circles. Also, a rumor, like a joke, allows the person to take ownership of it, add to it and extract from it. It is malleable and more functional than official news published on more credible sites.

However, the popularity of this digital time has not eliminated news monitoring entirely. The source of the rumor can be traced back to the account that first released it into the virtual world, and so it is possible to refute and counter it from there. This is not done automatically but needs planning and relying on resources.

The news in today’s war-stricken Yemen is a victim as the news sources that release it that have been dealt severe blows. And the current atmosphere encourages the making and spreading of rumors and counter-rumors in a popular cultural environment that encourages the circulation of news without scrutiny and questioning. The war enabled journalism to escape its obligations and duties to its profession, and to spread and multiply electronically at the expense of the journalistic profession that once served the people.

[1] News of the death of the Yemeni artist, Ayoob Tarish, has been a yearly occurrence since 2013 at least. The artist lives still, and I wish him many years to come.

[2] Reporters without Borders.

[3]The goal of propaganda is to supply a simplified version of the world”, says David Colon in an interview with Etienne Campion in Le Figaro, on 4 January 2019. Historian David Colon is the author of the book Propaganda: The Manipulation of the Masses in the Contemporary World” (Belin, 2018), in which he maps out the roots of modern propaganda as it relates to totalitarian regimes and liberal democracy.

[4] Muhammad Ali Nahr, “The Myth of the Character and the Safety of Sayings and Proverbs”, Popular Culture Magazine, Issue 32, Bahrain.

[5] David Fisher, Morality and War: Can War be Just in the Twenty-first Century? – Publisher: OUP Oxford, 2011

[6] There are no unified security statistics in Yemen, but the partial numbers presented in the Statistical Yearbook of 2017, for example, shows an increase in crime by 10%. And the lack of data signifies the importance of not neglecting this increasing percentage. See Yemen’s CSO.

[7] Ibn Khaldun. The Muqaddiman: An Introduction to History. Trans. N.J. Dawood, Franz Rosenthal, Bruce B. Lawrence. Princeton University Press, 2020.

[8] Abdullah al-Baradouni, Popular Culture in Yemen: Imaginative Experiences and Hearsay. Dar al-Ma’mun 1988. pp. 77.

[9] Aiman Nabil, Al-Bahout Al-Hadith: Critical Reflections on the Myth of Al-Hamdi, Al-Madaniya Magazine, 10 October 2019.

[10] Taken from an Arabic interview by Dr. Muhammad al-Aqari, a professor of media at Sana’a University. He investigated the reality of scientific journalism in Yemen in Al-Thawra Newspaper, 20 May 2013.

[11] A YouTube video has been circulating for years taken from the Russia Today news channel in English about oil reserve estimates in Yemen. It indicates that Yemen’s oil reserves exceed those of the Gulf states combined. The same report refers to an economist’s claim that Yemen’s oil reserves are close to 9 billion barrels, while the combined oil reserves of the Gulf states are close to 500 billion barrels.

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Mustafa Naji

A researcher and former Yemeni diplomat based in France.

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