Psychological war, which is based mainly on rumors, is one
of the most reliable methods to fight countries, as it does not show the enemy
clearly. The public is prey to hatred and the risk of rumors increases,
especially with the widespread use of social media among young people and
adults alike, which is also open to terrorist groups to spread rumors.
Sociologists view rumors as communicated messages and unconfirmed or anonymous reports, which do not contain known standards of credibility, that are transmitted from person to person through various means, whether spoken, audible or visual (i.e. through mass media) to distort a person’s image or influence public opinion.
The objectives of rumors are summarized in several points, most notably:
Confusing public opinion: This is done by spreading rumors that cause confusion and questions among citizens, as public opinion circulates quickly, especially if it touches on issues and aspects of public interest.
Destroying morale: Terrorist groups exploit the state of ambiguity in some cases to broadcast rumors among the public, especially in the case of revolutions or wars.
Rumors in exchange for truth: Some authorities rely on spreading rumors to conceal facts from the public or as a means of obtaining real information. This technique is extensively used in cases of war.
Disturbing general peace: The dissemination of rumors undermines official symbols and institutions, which impedes states’ development efforts.
Destroying economic growth: Many external parties exploit the difficult economic conditions experienced by some countries, such as rising prices, unemployment, shortage of goods, and workers' strikes. They spread rumors in order to stop production, destroy infrastructure, and prevent commercial enterprises from carrying out their business.
Lifecycle of rumors
Rumors go through three stages: the stage of emergence, the stage of distribution, and the stage of confrontation and disappearance. In the stage of a rumor’s emergence, terrorist groups and the propagandists seek to exploit times of crises and disasters to launch their poison upon society. They aim to sow the seeds of sedition and hatred among members of society and spread fear and panic among the people.
In the stage of distribution, the rumor is disseminated among people by promoting it through a group of individuals by means of malicious media and social networks. It begins simply and is quickly passed on by people and becomes seen by many as an irrefutable truth. In the case of a disaster, rumors can be borne large and wide.
In the stage of confrontation and disappearance, the state or concerned authorities begin to confront the rumor, which contributes to the demonstration of facts and the disappearance of rumors, although the process of a rumor disappearing may take time depending on the extent of public response to the points of confrontation.
The Brotherhood and rumors
Terrorist groups in general and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular were not far behind in spreading and promoting rumors following the train incident at Cairo’s Ramses Square on February 27. This is consistent with the nature of the group, which is used to committing lies. The group tried to take advantage of citizens’ grief following the train accident, trying to win favor through the situation, without regard for the sanctity of the martyrs or the feelings of grief that dominated the general public. The group began to spread lies through social media attacking President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the government with claims of negligence.
The Brotherhood and affiliated members to spread their lies on a large scale in order to reach as much of the general public as possible and attempt to increase its credibility. Here the Brotherhood went from reaching its own followers to reaching members of the public sympathetic to the group though not official members, and then ultimately to neutral audiences.
Despite only a few hours separating the appearance of the rumors and the government’s response to them, the dissemination was extensive due to two factors. The first was the gravity of the situation due to the dozens of casualties, and the second was the Brotherhood’s attempt to exploit the situation according to its agenda against the Egyptian state.
However, the state was able to quickly release the facts and supporting evidence, significantly quelling the spread of the rumors. This prompted the Brotherhood to launch several hashtags to try to save face, but they quickly went away due to the lack of interaction from the public, marking a new popular defeat against the Brotherhood in Egypt.
Mechanisms to counter rumors
This was not the first time that the group relied on a cyber army to spread rumors, and it would not be the last. They aimed to suffocate the Egyptian state, spread terror among the citizens, falsify the collective awareness and create a dark situation in the eyes of society. Instead of broadcasting these rumors in writing, they would edit and broadcast videos to inspire as many people as possible.
In order to face the group’s poisoned objectives, several steps must be taken:
1 - Suffocating the rumor with truth: This mechanism is one of the most important steps to be followed at the outbreak of a rumor. The truth must be presented by a group of experts, consultants and researchers in order to expedite the process of taking the rumor from the stage of distribution to the stage of confrontation and disappearance.
The Egyptian state was suffering from not completely countering rumors, leaving public opinion prey to rumors and those who promote them, opening the door for propagandists to achieve their goals in Egypt’s public sphere, which was evident during the previous eras.
However, the increased speed of response issued by the state during the recent period can be seen through several media and research observatories, such as the Cabinet’s Information and Decision Support Center, the Dar al-Iftaa Observatory, and other government agencies. There is hope that responding to rumors will be even faster in order to block terrorist groups from exploiting crises.
2 - Exploiting rumors with the aim of exposing their source to the public: In the past it was difficult to know the source of a rumor, but it is now easier to discover the source, especially if the rumor was initiated electronically. Many tools contribute to exposing rumors and their sources to the public.
3 - Mastering cyber warfare: Technological tools have contributed to the rapid transfer and dissemination of information among a large segment of the public, creating a false awareness of events among the public and convincing them that the rumor is the absolute truth that the majority of the public believes in.
The state must master the mechanisms of countering electronic rumors, breaking up their information and opinions, highlighting their objectives, and responding to the source of the rumor in record time, while also disseminating the truth. This has become a top priority recently, as it leads to preventing terrorist groups from achieving their goals.
It is clear that cyber warfare, whether at the level of countries or individuals, is the future of war. Egypt must take effective steps in this regard, especially with the Muslim Brotherhood and some regional countries such as Qatar and Turkey waiting in ambush.