On the night of August 16, a colleague posted an audio clip of a man in a WhatsApp group. Speaking in a harrowing tone in Malayalam, the man claimed to be stuck in chest-deep water in Ernakulam district of Kerala (he didn’t specify where) and requested everyone in the district and adjoining Thrissur to run away to safer places because the Mullaperiyar dam was leaking. “The government hasn’t released the information yet, but the dam is leaking. Within 3 hours, Ernakulam will drown. A friend in the PMO told me. So tell all your friends and family to leave as soon as possible,” he said.
Within minutes, a cousin sister called up, asking whether the dam was safe. She had heard the same clip. I assured her that the dam was safe.
Sure enough, the man’s audio clip was found to be completely fake. When a senior police officer in a control room was informed, he acknowledged the existence of such messages. “All these people will be caught. We are coordinating with the cyber cell to take strong action. This is dangerous,” he said.
The LDF government in Kerala, even during the earlier Nipah virus outbreak and now, has time and again requested people not to pay heed to unverified messages passing through social media channels like Facebook and WhatsApp. Listen only to official directions coming from the government, it said.
As the state battles one of its worst natural calamities, which has already claimed the lives of over 300 people, WhatsApp groups have a major role to play in relief and rescue efforts. There are fake and unverified messages doing the rounds which are promptly being referred by journalists and rescue personnel to the authorities.
But what has been affirmative are the large number of groups on WhatsApp, coordinating relief and rescue operations, whose work rules over the impact of fake news. Many of these groups are led by responsible and socially-aware citizens who act as admins, segregated into districts and further classified on the basis of what objective it has been created to serve. So there are separate groups for food supplies in Ernakulam, specific groups for supplies like blankets, mats and sanitary napkins, specific groups for medicines, some for transportation of relief and others strictly for relief efforts.
Kripa Sam, a mother to two kids, says she is part of at least ten WhatsApp groups catering to different needs in Ernakulam, Kollam and Thiruvananthapuram districts.
Kripa was drawn to helping and coordinating supplies on WhatsApp after her parents’ apartment in Kalamassery in Kochi was flooded. “Water had risen to the first floor. Somehow, they escaped the waters and came to my flat in Kadavanthra. Now, that flat is completely submerged. In Kadavanthra, we didn’t have water and power supply and my mother has health issues, so we drove down to Kollam,” she said on phone.
“I have lost touch with all my relatives in Chengannur. I don’t know whether they have even been rescued,” an anguished Kripa said. Chengannur in Alappuzha district is one of the worst-affected regions in the state. Thousands of homes are submerged, electricity supply is down and people are stranded on upper floors, waiting to be picked up by helicopters and boats. “They have been starving for the last three days,” she said.
Finding inspiration from her friends and others who were volunteering, Kripa took to ensuring coordination of relief supplies on WhatsApp. She is an admin of an Ernakulam relief group and is a member of several others. One such group, the writer is a part of, was buzzing with hundreds of messages flowing in a minute. The conversations ranged from the condition of relief camps, people stranded in Aluva, Paravur areas, condition of roads in Ernakulam, lack of medicines at certain camps to hundreds of donors who are ready with supplies.
“Yes, the challenge is the amount of information that’s flowing in. Many of it is coming from our friends and relatives, so we can vouch for its authenticity. When donors come forward with supplies, we connect them to the right people. That’s all we can do right now,” said Kripa.
“Two of my friends are supplying cooked food to relief camps in Ernakulam, so I am coordinating that also,” she added.
People like Kripa and others are also in touch with specific NDRF and army rescue teams. They have been connecting with ham radio operations, private radio stations and television channels to relay information. Some of the people about whom information was passed, Kripa confirmed, returned with positive news from the authorities.
“When so many people around us are struggling and calling out for help, how can we sleep at night? My two kids are sick, but I can’t move away from the phone. This is the least I can do, right?” she said.