Steve Salgra Rema

Fellow, Dismislab
When staged videos fuel misinformation on social media

When staged videos fuel misinformation on social media

Steve Salgra Rema

Fellow, Dismislab

Staged or scripted videos are created to depict specific scenes that appear as real as they look. While this type of content contributes significantly to the entertainment world, it can often blur the lines between reality and fiction.

Dismislab has identified at least seven scripted videos that have circulated on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter (X), and TikTok in Bangladesh and India. These include incidents such as a woman being forced off a bus during Ramadan or a man marrying another woman after ending a five-year relationship and thus misinformation is spread and confusion is created among the public. This report is based on analyses from at least six different fact-checking organizations in India and Bangladesh.

The propagation of staged videos

A video released in April claimed that a groom and his father were tied up by the girl’s family over a dowry claim. It circulated widely on various Facebook pages, groups, and personal accounts. The video was also posted as a reel on the official page of the mainstream media based outlet based in Bangladesh The Daily Ittefaq, with the caption “The girl’s family tied up the groom and his father with a rope for demanding dowry.” However, upon verification by Dismislab, the video was revealed to be staged, not depicting a real event.

A video claiming that a woman was forced to leave a bus for not wearing a veil went viral on social media Facebook last March (1,2,3). In the video, a bus helper prevents a woman from boarding the bus, leading to a verbal dispute. The bus driver and helper demand that the woman get off the bus, stating that unveiled women are not allowed on the bus during  Ramadan.

Facebook users believed the incident to be true and made various comments. On March 15th, a user shared the video and wrote, “During Ramadan, no unveiled woman will be allowed to enter any vehicle. If necessary, the driver and helper will abandon the vehicle and flee. Seeing an unveiled woman during Ramadan breaks one’s fast.” Another user wrote, “Don’t let unveiled women on buses during Ramadan. Salute mama.”

Although the video was made in Bangladesh, it crossed borders and spread to India as well. An Indian Facebook shared the post and wrote, “This is the condition of Hindus in Bangladesh. During Ramadan, Hindu women who are not veiled or modestly dressed will not be allowed on buses. Think about what the future of Hindus will be like in a few years.” In the comments section, one person remarked, “I know one thing, Bangladeshi Muslims are very communal. They are much more oppressive than Pakistani Muslims.”

As explained by multiple fact-checking reports (1,2,3,4) from Bangladesh and India, the incident of an unveiled woman being forced off a bus during Ramadan is not real. The video is staged. It is a scripted drama created for entertainment purposes, which was later falsely circulated on social media as a real event.

This is not the first time that a staged video from Bangladesh has spread as misinformation in India. At least five other videos have gone viral on social media in both India and Bangladesh. One notable video, released in July of last year, claimed to show a young woman being married off to an elderly man in a ‘hilla’ marriage arrangement. The video was widely shared on the social media platform X (formerly Twitter) in India (1,2,3). However, upon verification by the Indian fact-checking organization Newschecker, it was revealed that the video was not of a real event but was scripted or staged.

In the same month, a staged video from Bangladesh, claiming to be a case of “love jihad”, went viral (1,2,3). The video circulated in India with this claim and it shows a man and a woman secretly getting into a moving car with the help of a friend, who then quickly drives away in an auto-rickshaw with others. The video was shared with a Hindi caption that translates to: “This is how a Sanatani girl is chased away in love jihad, giving her shelter and making complete preparations. There is a gang involved here so that any situation can be dealt with.” 

As explained by an Al Jazeera report, “love jihad” is essentially a conspiracy theory, implying  that a Muslim man is converting a Hindu woman to Islam under the guise of love or marriage. A report by the fact-checking organization Boom BD states that the video’s actor, Mohammed Sohag, confirmed to them that it is a scripted video and was shot in the Chandpur district of Bangladesh. Sohag also denies the communal angle that has gone viral with the video.

Before this incident, a video titled “Relationship of 5 years with cousin ends, marries another girl” went viral on Facebook with a false narrative in May 2023. In June, another video titled “Burying a bike because a different one was given instead of a Discover bike by the in-laws” also spread on Facebook with false claims.

In December of the same year, a staged video from India gained traction in Bangladesh. It was shared with the caption, “Son in trouble with his old father while going for medical treatment in India! Not allowing medical treatment! Indians angry with Bangladeshis for supporting India’s opponents in the Cricket World Cup!” India’s fact-checking organization, Fact Crescendo, reported that the video’s claim was misleading and that the staged video was being circulated as a real event.

How staged videos spread misinformation

When a staged video is taken out of its relevant context and circulated in a different situation, or when it is edited and presented incompletely, it can spread false or distorted messages. Videos, even if false, become more believable to people. A study by Pennsylvania State University found that 58% of people who watched a fake news video on a mobile app believed the story in the video. In contrast, 48% of people who heard the same story in audio format and only 33% of people who read the article believed it.

Staged videos should be clearly labeled as such, either as a warning or disclaimer. Many videos fail to do this, and if they do include a disclaimer, it is often placed at the end rather than at the beginning. As mentioned in a report by Singapore-based news outlet Think China, the sheer volume of short-form videos on various apps and platforms makes it difficult to distinguish between reality and fiction. Content creators often deliberately create scripted videos to evoke strong emotions in viewers and increase their “views”. To address this issue, the Chinese short-form video app Douyin has introduced a new rule. It states that starting from May 1, 2023, creators must clearly label or provide a written disclaimer for staged videos, or they risk being permanently banned from the platform.

To appear authentic, scripted videos are often filmed using basic cameras or sound equipment. As a result, viewers frequently mistake them for real, live events. That is why these videos appear more believable and captivating to viewers, making it challenging for many people to discern their authenticity.

People are generally more likely to accept and share information that aligns with their existing beliefs. Staged videos exploit this tendency by creating content that supports a  particular viewpoint. This increases the risk of further spreading misinformation within social circles. According to a report by the American Psychological Association (APA), “confirmation bias” leads people to seek out information that supports their beliefs rather than verifying its accuracy.

Social media platforms prioritize content that users find engaging, leading to the rapid spread of emotional videos. Consequently, misinformation reaches many people before it can be detected or corrected. As per the researchers from the US and Sweden, “social media algorithms amplify inherent biases among people, primarily for advertising revenue, which increases the risk of misinformation and polarization.”

Analysis of widely shared videos has shown that they often feature actors who are strangers to the viewers. As a result, many people fail to recognize that the characters in the scenes are actors, not participants in a real event.

The social impact

Considering the incidents in Bangladesh, it is clear that scripted videos can spread false or misleading information, potentially inciting gender or religious debates and tensions, which can harm social harmony.

Misleading and inaccurate video content can damage social cohesion or create tensions and debates about gender and religion. When asked about this, Md. Sayeed Al-Zaman, Assistant Professor at the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at Jahangirnagar University, told Dismislab, despite the growth of digital technology in Bangladesh, there is a general lack of digital literacy among social media users. This is compounded by various conflicts in our current social system. We are setting up confrontations between men and women, Hindus and Muslims, teachers and students. Content creators are exploiting these issues for business opportunities and further intensifying these conflicts. He further stated, “The quality of institutional education is also to blame, as it does not foster religious or gender sensitivity among people. Thus, these contents contribute to dissatisfaction and violent attitudes. It is crucial to address this problem through the proper use of technology and law enforcement, and content creators should consider the potential impact of their work when creating content.”

Why on the rise

Why are cheap staged videos created? What motivations exist besides Facebook monetization? Fact-checker Shuvashish Das Ray Dip of the fact-checking organization FactWatch was asked about this. He explained that it is not directly possible to know if a page is earning under social media, especially Facebook’s monetization policy, unless the page itself discloses the information.

However, there are sometimes indications of this through advertising. “Facebook’s policy guidelines prohibit monetizing controversial social content. It seems that this content is created to get more reactions and reach, which is widely circulated among ambivalent people,” opined fact-checker Shuvashish.

How to Determine if Real or Staged

The accuracy of the information, the credibility of the source, and the purpose of publication—all these factors can be considered to verify the authenticity of any video on social media. Fact-checker Shuvashish has shared several strategies with Dismislab for recognizing staged videos, such as:

  1. Carefully observe the video is necessary. If it is staged, some inconsistencies will become evident. These videos are carefully crafted, so a certain clarity can be noticed in all aspects. For instance, the video quality will be relatively high, there will be rapid changes in frames, the sound will be clear, and the language used may seem somewhat artificial.
  1. Verifying the source of the video can also be helpful. Identifying where the video was first published can easily indicate whether the video is real or staged.
  1. Check if there is a disclaimer associated with the video. These are most often found in the video’s caption, description, at the beginning, or the end. A disclaimer will indicate whether a video documents a real event or has been deliberately staged based on a script.
  1. Observe the video for any visible recording devices or equipment. If cameras or microphones are present, it indicates that the video was created for a specific purpose.
  1. Taking a screenshot from the video and conducting a reverse image search can also help verify its authenticity. This can be done by searching related keywords or directly using keywords related to the video.
  1. Check established fact-checking websites to see if the video has already been verified.
  1. If someone is identifiable in the video, gather information by looking at their social media profile. Examine other posts and videos on the discussed page or profile to see if there have been similar staged scenes before or if the same actors have appeared in other videos.