Forward ‘soch ke’ Think before you forward

‘A herd of giraffes is walking down majestically to the diving board. One by one the giraffes pull off acrobatic dive into the swimming pool.’ An awesome video going viral on social media with the claim that it is a real show in Australia! The fact is it is not a real show, but computer graphics, an award winning animated video. Sample another widely shared image which is of an elephant carrying a lion cub with its trunk and a lioness walking by the side.  The picture is going round in social media with the back-story that the elephant is coming to the rescue of a cub in harsh Sahara desert. Fantastic!  Animals forgetting animosity in the times of adversity! However, the photo is not real, but a doctored image.

These are tall claims, fake videos and photos, but absolutely harmless. However, there are many manipulated stories, videos and pictures being forwarded on WhatsApp and circulated on other social media platforms that can be dangerous- pitching community against community, religion against religion- spreading hatred, fear and mistrust through divisive messages. A large number of these malicious posts are sham, not based upon facts, but made purposely by the dedicated fake news industry to serve vested interests. Earlier the virtual world did not exist, but in the age of social media, rumours and hatred spread fast like a wild fire. There have been instances when fake forwards have lead to riots and mob lynchings in recent years by giving leverage to existing prejudices at the mass level. We have been witness to the enmities of the virtual world getting translated into violence, arson, loot, destruction, killings in the real world when riots broke out in East Delhi in 2019.

In fact, there is an industry backed by political parties churning out fake messages. Parties create and spread messages to suit their agenda, to influence people and sway elections. Never mind if history is distorted, facts are twisted, stories are planted, news is manipulated, pictures are morphed and images are used out of context but political agenda must be served. A study titled ‘Images and misinformation in political groups: evidence from WhatsApp in India’ conducted by two researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) from the end of 2018 to  mid-2019 ,the period leading up to the 2019 general elections in India finds that image misinformation is highly prevalent on WhatsApp public groups. The study states one out of eight images shared in politically oriented WhatsApp groups contained some kind of factual inaccuracy indicating extensive abuse of WhatsApp for election campaign in India. The study reveals that out of these 13 percent of images that contained false news; about 34 percent were old images that were taken out of context. Fake quotes and false statistics made up 30 percent of images and 10 percent of images were photo-shopped or doctored.

Besides politically motivated posts, fake information and WhatsApp forwards are adding to coronavirus myths. Ever since the outbreak of the pandemic, scores of self-styled experts have emerged on social media giving unmasked advice on treatment of the virus. There is no dearth of medical advice – all kinds of cures -allopathic, homeopathic, ayurvedic, naturopathy- are going round the social media. Taking a dig at (mis) information galore on social media, a WhatsApp post says, “I have just finished my post-doctorate on corona virus treatment from WhatsApp University.”

In this game of mindless shares and fake forwards, great thinkers, leaders, historical personalities are being blatantly misquoted. Many quotes credited to Chankya, an adviser to Chandra Gupta Maurya on social media are not his. “If there is unrest among intellectuals and criminals assume that the king is doing right,” is his widely circulated fake quote. It is farfetched to believe that Chankya, an intellectual himself would have been critical of his own clan of intellectuals. A viral quote on the impact of coronavirus on Indian economy written in a motivational tone has been falsely attributed to Ratan Tata, “2020 is the year to survive, not to make profits….”The WhatsApp forward is false. Ratan Tata had to take to twitter to clarify the quote was not his.

Sometimes one can attribute agenda behind a post, but is baffling why poets and writers have become victims of fake forwards. Many second rate poems which are nowhere near the work of Gulzar are being attributed to the veteran poet. He has written ‘Adetein Bhi Ajeeb hoti hain’ but he says he would  certainly not write ‘Aurtan bhi ajeeb hoti hai’ which has gone viral in social media under his name .Recently the celebrated Punjabi poet Amrita Pritam too became a target of fakes going viral . The poems which are too simplistic to fit into oeuvre of Amrita Pritam, neither having her diction nor her vision, are being celebrated as hers. Pranksters have spared no one, not even legends like Ghalib, Iqbal, Harivansh Rai Bachchan, Munshi Prem Chand and also the Bard of Avon–Shakespeare .Great men like Mahatma Gandhi, Vivekananda and Einstein, too, have become victims of new epidemic of false forwards.

The extent of misinformation on social media can be gauged from the result of a 2019 Microsoft study which found that 64% of Indians encounter fake messages on-line, the highest among the 22 countries surveyed. Another study by three MIT scholars has found that false news spreads more rapidly on the social network Twitter than real news does, and by a substantial margin. “We found that falsehood diffuses significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth, in all categories of information, and in many cases by an order of magnitude,” says Sinan Aral, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and co-author of a new paper detailing the findings.

Millions of people in India today may be hooked on to social media and messaging service WhatsApp for their daily dose of news, views and entertainment, but the fact is the pandemic of fake news has turned these into platforms of misinformation. A staggering number of disembodied messages and videos are doing rounds of social media platforms and credulous WhatsApp circuits like headless chickens .  It is hard to distinguish credible facts from misinformation and sift truth from lies.

Thanks to mindless shares, incessant forwards and re-tweets; social media is a black-hole of unverified news. To curb the virus of misinformation, WhatsApp has taken certain initiatives. Since last year the forwarded messages can be forwarded to five users only and frequently forwarded messages to only one chat at a time. WhatsApp has introduced yet another feature in certain countries that allows the   users of certain advanced applications to verify authenticity of any frequently forwarded message. But right now the feature is not available in India, hence not easy to verify the correctness of the message but to surf google.

It is always important to exercise caution while speaking. ‘Zabaan sambhaal ke’ since the words spoken once cannot be taken back, but today in the age of social media it is even more important to forward ‘soch ke’ as a post can become viral within no time. It is imperative to exercise restraint and think before sharing and pressing the forward buttons.

(Published in Woman’s Era July 2021) 


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