Spreading fake news and rumours on social media destabilises the security of the country and could cause losses to the tune of "millions of dirhams", a Dubai Police official has said.

Stepping up its awareness drive to counter the spread of rumours, the police's Al Ameen service organised a panel discussion to warn residents about fake news and false claims that are often circulated through social media.

Jamal Ahmed from Al Ameen service stressed that sharing rumours and other false statements is a criminal offence that is punishable by law with a fine of up to Dh1 million.

In his talk, Ahmed identified some of the rumours that have been circulated in the country recently, saying that most of them came from people and organisations that wanted to boost their following on social media.

Many rumours sought to tarnish the UAE's reputation globally, he said. These included purported strikes by Houthi militia at Abu Dhabi and Dubai airports; unfounded reports about carcinogens in popular food products available in the country; 'abandoned vehicles' in Dubai; 'murder' of a popular Moroccan singer in Dubai; 'availability of drugs' in schools; and photos that wrongly showed university students as martyrs in the Yemen war.

One absurd write-up said Dubai was a ghost town, while a rumour went as far as saying that a certain 'ruler's court' was giving money away - a post that Ahmed said had unfortunately gone viral.

"One rumour that went viral suggested that the UAE had launched a robot to spy on Friday prayer goers. However, it later emerged that the interactive robot was in fact invented by students of the Al Ain University," said Ahmed.

Yet another rumour that aimed to tarnish the UAE's reputation suggested that the fire at Address Downtown Dubai hotel on New Year's Eve in 2015 was caused by the Houthis. "We have to think about the security impact of the rumours we help spread," said Ahmed.

Awareness key in fight against fakes

Fighting the spread of rumours "goes beyond denying them", Ahmed said. He stressed the need for stronger awareness drives across all institutions. Families and teachers, in particular, play an important role in training the youth on how to handle the information they encounter online.

If one chances upon a rumour or a statement that is not supported with reliable sources, he or she must report it to the authorities concerned and refrain from sharing it, Ahmed advised.

The media, along with the news platforms of government offices, police and other authorities continue to be the public's most reliable source of information, according to Al Ameen.

"Propaganda is tough to combat. It is an organised evil that is designed to cause fear using lies and half-truths. Defending the country against it takes patience, skills and strategy. It can only be countered through awareness," said Ahmed.

How rumours spread

> Fake news is created and spread aggressively

> 'Opinion polls' or 'studies' are quoted to lend credibility

> Fake or dated photos are spread with the rumour

> The 'news' is put on social media platforms

> Information is shared on random profiles online

> Unsuspecting residents help spread the rumours by blindly forwarding the messages without confirming it

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