Minhaj Aman

Research-Lead, Dismislab
The jeans-earthquake connection: unraveling the origins of a viral false claim
This article is more than 1 year old

The jeans-earthquake connection: unraveling the origins of a viral false claim

Minhaj Aman

Research-Lead, Dismislab

Following the destructive earthquake in Turkey and Syria in February, a rumour quickly spread across Facebook, suggesting that Pakistani politician Maulana Fazlur Rahman had attributed the rising number of earthquakes to the prevailing trend of women wearing jeans.

From 2015 to 2023, this claim resurfaced on social media multiple times, garnering both criticism and support. Critics denounced the statement as a manifestation of religious bigotry, while others genuinely believed it, offering religious arguments to defend their stance. The news regarding this issue even made its way into local and foreign media, sparking widespread discussions on blogs and newspapers.

However, it is essential to clarify that the viral statement was entirely false. Initially published as a satire piece by a Pakistani website in 2014, the claim was misconstrued as genuine news by several media outlets in India, Bangladesh, and Western countries. While some media organisations later acknowledged their mistake and issued corrections, others continued to circulate the news without rectifying their error. Consequently, the false statement persisted on social media, fueled by the re-sharing of outdated news sources.

Through this verification process, it becomes evident how easily satire can be misconstrued, leading to the spread of false information with the help of the media. The incident sheds light on the intersection of religious belief systems, media errors, and the establishment of fake news narratives. It underscores the necessity of responsible reporting, critical thinking, and media literacy in combating the proliferation of misinformation, especially in the digital age where information spreads rapidly across social media platforms.

When satire gives rise to fake news

The story originated from the online Pakistani newspaper, Khabaristan Times, which was unknowingly used as a source by news outlets around the world. However, it was discovered that Khabaristan Times is actually a satire site, and the Pakistani government banned it on January 25, 2017. At that time, a prominent Pakistani media outlet, Dawn, reported on the event and published an editorial.

During the time of its operation, Khabaristan Times published articles satirizing various flaws within the state and society. While the website itself is now closed, its Facebook page remains active, with the last post dating back to January 2017.

The original satire article, titled “Maulana Fazlur Rahman Calls for Military Operation Against Jeans-Wearing Women,” was found in the Internet Archive, dating back to May 22, 2015. Prior to this article, Khabaristan Times had already published multiple satirical pieces featuring the Pakistani politician Maulana Fazlur Rahman.

Further investigation revealed that the same satire was initially published on the Pakistan Today website on February 1, 2014, almost a year earlier. During that time, the media outlet’s satire section was called “Khabristan Today.” Later in the same year, “Khabaristan Today” became an independent website known as Khabaristan Times.

In an interview with Kunwar Khuldune Shahid, co-founder of the now-defunct Khabaristan Times, he explained their motive for writing the satire about Fazlur Rahman. According to Shahid, Fazlur Rahman was one of the most prominent Islamist leaders in Pakistan, frequently making misogynistic comments. At the time, he was particularly vocal against a women’s rights bill that was being debated.

Shahid clarified that they initially launched Khabaristan Today in 2013 in collaboration with Pakistan Today, which later became an independent entity in 2014. The satire article was first published on Khabaristan Today and subsequently on Khabaristan Times.

Shahid said, “I believe on both occasions it was reported in the international press, just as it is being reported even today.”

How a satire became news

The satirical article, which had been published separately on two Pakistani satire sites in 2014 and 2015, gained more attention in 2015. Coincidentally, this was shortly after a devastating earthquake struck Nepal on April 25, 2015, claiming the lives of nearly 9,000 people and capturing global attention.

On May 22, 2015, Khabaristan Times published the satire titled “Maulana Fazlur Rahman Calls for Military Operation Against Jeans-Wearing Women.” However, it was another website called “Sheikyermami,” primarily focused on opposing Islamic extremism, that posted the article as legitimate news under the headline “Earthquakes Are Caused by Jean-Wearing Women.

Following this, numerous Indian media outlets picked up the story. Online portals such as the New Indian Express, The Quint, India Times, and Deccan Chronicle published similar articles from May 30 onwards. Additionally, Zee News Bangla, the Hindi-language newspaper Jagran, and Afghanistan-based Khama Press also shared similar narratives, citing Khabaristan Times as their source.

The story further spread to Western media, with several outlets referencing Indian newspapers as their source. Notable examples include US-based Fox News, the UK’s Daily Star, and Asian Image, all of which published the news story based on information from the New Indian Express. While some media outlets later issued false corrections, acknowledging the satirical nature of the article, many retained the story without labelling it as fake news.

Interestingly, the New York Times also published and subsequently retracted the story. Screenshots and quotes from the article were shared on verified Twitter accounts such as Women in the World and on the news site Al-Arabiya. However, the original link to the New York Times article is no longer active.

How it appeared in Bangladeshi Media

Numerous Bangladeshi social media users have recently been sharing posts claiming that earthquakes are caused by women wearing jeans. Often, these posts are accompanied by a news story or a screenshot from the daily newspaper Kaler Kantha.

On May 31, 2015, Kaler Kantha published a news article stating that Maulana Fazlur Rahman, the head of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islami Fazl (JUI-F), had made remarks linking women’s jeans-wearing to disasters like earthquakes during a press conference in Islamabad. 

The article did not provide a specific source for this information, but its language closely resembles a news story published on India’s Zee-Bangla website. Consequently, several Bangladeshi media outlets (1, 2) also reported on the news during the same month.

NTV online, for example, mentioned, “Sheikhyermami.com, the mouthpiece of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, published a news item regarding this on Saturday.” However, our investigation has revealed that Sheikhyermami is not an authentic news site.

Furthermore, based on this claim, Jagonews 24 published an opinion piece on the topic. Additionally, the subject has been addressed in feature reports and numerous Bengali blogs. To this day, all of these news items remain accessible on their respective websites.

Why satire becomes news

Shahid, the founder of Khabaristan Times who currently works for The Diplomat magazine, said, “I think if media practitioners spend merely a couple of minutes on any satirical portal — it could be an online publication, social media page, or a spoof account — they would realise if the source is producing news or satire.”

Regrettably, Shahid noted that when a media outlet releases a satirical piece, it often sets off a chain reaction. He said, “Unfortunately, when one newspaper picks up satire, it has a domino effect, given that many justify their laziness — or deliberate push for easy clicks — by citing the first authentic newspaper that treats the satire as a genuine story.”

An opinion piece published in the prominent US media outlet, The Beast, highlighted how even reputable sources can fall victim to satirical content. The Onion, a well-known satire website, managed to deceive mainstream media outlets, including the New York Times and ESPN, on at least nine occasions.

How it came onto social media and stayed there

Following the devastating earthquake in Turkey and Syria on February 6, Facebook users began posting (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) about the earthquake in connection to women’s jeans. The majority of these posts criticised the claim that the trend of women wearing jeans was responsible for causing earthquakes. Although they believed that the statement was originated by a Maulana from Pakistan and criticised such a notion.

Since 2015, similar posts have surfaced on Facebook at different times (2022, 2021, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015). Interestingly, during major earthquakes worldwide in 2018, 2021, and 2022, these posts resurfaced on social media platforms.

Not all the posts were critical of the claim; some users (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) attempted to either directly or indirectly support the notion that earthquakes could be linked to lifestyle choices such as women’s jeans wearing.

Luavut Zahid, co-founder of Khabaristan Times and currently working as the publishing editor of Crisis Response Journal, explained to Dismislab that sometimes the nonsensical statements made by leaders are taken seriously, blurring the line between satire and truth. She said, “I think one reason this particular story went viral was also because some of our leaders already spew such nonsense on such a regular basis that what we meant as sarcasm got taken to be the truth”

Religion, Disaster, and Belief Systems

Various religious speakers from different countries and religions have made statements connecting changing lifestyles to calamitous events. For example, Iranian religious leader Kazim Sadeghi said in 2010, “Many women who do not dress modestly… lead young men astray, destroy their chastity, and spread adultery in society, thereby increasing earthquakes.” His statement was published in the British newspaper The Guardian.

Sabina Magliocco, a professor of sociocultural anthropology at the University of British Columbia, explains that religions with beliefs in apocalypse often find religious significance in catastrophic changes.

In October 2016, following an earthquake in Italy, a priest named Giovanni Cavalecoli attributed the disaster to divine punishment, linking it to practices such as same-sex marriage (civil unions). Similarly, in 2018, after a severe flood in India’s Kerala, a leader of Tamil Nadu’s Hindu nationalist party Hindu Makkal Katchi (HMK) claimed that the flood was a punishment for allowing women to enter the Sabarimala temple. This statement faced significant criticism at the time.

In a study titled “A content analysis of social media users’ reaction to religious disinformation in Bangladesh,” researcher Md. Saeed Al-Zaman found that 62 percent of individuals responded to religious disinformation on social media with emotion-driven reactions, while only 38 percent responded with reason-based reactions.

** Tamara Yesmin assisted in data collection and research.