Check, check and check again

Philip Golingai

Philip Golingai, The Star

“HOT NEWS! From Herald Sun Australia – Detained murderer of Mongolian model Altantuya Shaariibuu, Sirul Ahzar Umar (bodyguard of PM Najib Razak) will testify next week in Australian court that he was under orders from Rosmah Mansor (PM Najib’s wife) to kill her for blackmailing her husband.”

Most probably fake news shared, I told myself on Wednesday. That WhatsApp message had gone viral – it was shared on almost all of my WhatsApp groups.

Many believed it.

A Tan Sri shared it on my Sabah WhatsApp group and someone posted, “Tan Sri na kan (you see). They really thought they can silence Sirul forever.”

But there were also sceptics.

“This Herald Sun Australia piece of news is likely a cut & paste hoax,” added someone in my WhatsApp “news group”, created by Sabah Progressive Party (SAPP) president Datuk Yong Teck Lee and consisting of SAPP members and Sabah journalists.

Yong, who is a former Sabah Chief Minister, posted: “Is the Herald Sun Australia newspaper report authentic? There are too many false postings around. Can someone check Herald Sun?”.

Someone with an Australian phone number posted: “Fake news. No such news onHerald Sun. Would have been breaking news all over if true. Unlikely also for a witness announcing what he will testify.”

On the same day, my colleague Razak Ahmad called Sirul’s lawyer Hasnal Rezua Merican.

The lawyer confirmed that the WhatsApp message claiming that Sirul will reveal in an Australian court next week that Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor had ordered him to kill the Mongolian for blackmailing Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak was a hoax.

“I have checked with Sirul and he has absolutely no knowledge of saying any such thing or speaking with any journalist from the Herald Sun,” said Hasnal.

“The message which is being spread is a hoax, and I believe that it originated in Malaysia and was meant for a local audience.”

“As far as I know, Sirul does not have any pending court appearance in Australia next week,” he added.

With the 1MDB issue heating up, it is the season for fake news.

“These days, there is so much fake news around. It is highly irresponsible of people to manufacture fake news. Sadly, many fall for fake news and some even act based on fake news,” Yong posted in “news group”. “We have to use our common sense and to verify important news via the credible media.”

Someone in the group posted: “Unfortunately, 95% of Malaysians believed it. All of them talking (about Sirul’s supposed testimony) in kopitiam now.”

I asked the group: “Can someone explain why people fall for fake messages?”

“Philip, people are fed up with the govt that they are so willing to accept any poisonous news about them,” someone posted. “It is natural for people to believe ‘negative’ news on people they don’t like. Try bad mouthing their idol, they’ll fight you tooth and nail.”

Another member replied: “The fake message is like Hollywood. 1) it is sensational. 2) it is shocking. 3) it makes you feel intelligent, like finding gold. 4) you sit behind a screen looking at your favourite phone quite defenceless of what’s coming.”

I asked Yong, the president of a Sabah opposition party, why he was constantly reminding his members to verify the news they received via WhatsApp.

“After a few bad experiences of sending out fake news, I now make an effort to verify before posting news or fantastic stories. It is wise to not jump at a dramatic story and share without some due diligence in checking,” he said.

Yong continued: “I am more careful. Check first, Google or ask around such as media people. What has been sent out cannot be retracted. It happened to others as well. Like the fake story complete with photo of a local girl being attacked by illegal immigrants at Suria complex (in Kota Kinabalu). They even lodged police reports.”

“I don’t want our people to be fed with fake news. Like the murder of the Najadi guy,” he added.

Yong was referring to a viral WhatsApp message on “AmBank significant events”.

The message alleged that on March 21 and March 25, 2013, Najib’s AmBank account received a total deposit of US$680mil (RM2,578mil). And AmBank founder Hussain Ahmad Najadi reported to Bank Negara Malaysia that a significant amount of money was deposited into the account. It claimed Najadi filed a police report on the transactions before he was shot dead on July 29, 2013.

The WhatsApp message is factually wrong. Firstly, Najadi is not the founder of AmBank. I even posted two pages of “Tan Sri Azman Hashim: The Entrepreneur Banker” (AmBank group chairman) on WhatsApp to show that Najadi was not the founder.

I also explained how Najadi was identified as AmBank founder. “Here’s how he was called AmBank founder. When he was killed, crime reporters named him as AmBank founder. And that description stuck. If you ask business reporters, they’ll say he’s not the founder,” I posted.

Secondly, Najadi had already left AmBank several years ago and it meant that he was not involved with the bank in 2013. Thirdly, he was killed over a land deal in Kuala Lumpur. Fourthly, Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Khalid Abu Bakar confirmed that the police did not receive any report from Najadi prior to his killing.

We’ll continue to receive fake news such as that the Prime Minister will ban social media and WhatsApp.

Many will believe them as the public feel that they have been lied to too many times.