On that terrible day of rumours and half-truths that began with white jet smoke in the skies and ended with terrifying images of a captured pilot, one WhatsApp forward was lost in the din of misinformation. Hash tagged #verifybeforeyoushare it urged users to think hard whether what they were sending was true, and if it might agitate the receiver reading it. WhatsApp, since it’s free, has turned Indians from every social strata into relentless forwarders of everything from cheesy good morning messages to religious greetings to dangerously inflammatory content that shows people distributing sweets at the idea of war with Pakistan.
Undoubtedly, even 15,000 years ago, when prehistoric man was making cave drawings with his mates, they were probably discussing the hunter-gatherer outside who wasn’t holding up his end of the bargain. The joy of bonding with one person over someone else’s shortcomings is, as we all know, deeply gratifying. Similarly, in the modern context, you can rant and rally round your 500 Facebook friends whom you barely know by passing on second-hand information that is hearsay and unverified. Most will buy it. Fake news is nothing but random gossip to the power of a million. In fact, it’s remarkable how little human behaviour has changed over the millenniums. Napoleon, during the Franco-Prussian war noted, wryly, that secrets travel fast in Paris. The irrepressible wit Oscar Wilde declared with relish in his play Lady Windermere’s Fan, “Gossip is charming! History is merely gossip. But scandal is gossip made tedious by morality.” What has changed over centuries is not our innate desire to spread interesting news but our ability to do so, so much more effectively. Before solutions emerge on how to hold people accountable on social media, the world also has to accept that humans are hardwired to be curious about other people’s lives. They will talk, at length, unthinkingly and unequivocally, about those hypothetical situations that affect us all.
When danger looms so precariously close like it has in the last week in India, it’s perfectly natural for citizens to want to express themselves and engage with their fellow countrymen. However, just like as adults we are responsible for the words we speak, the mere act of forwarding also must be considered very carefully. From an ethical point of view, when you send something ahead, it means you’re vouching for that information. A good way to navigate or keep in check our online opinions is that the same rules for cocktail party conversation and social media apply: don’t forward anything that you wouldn’t say to someone on an evening out. Last year, in tech savvy Bangalore, a 26-year-old man was beaten to death over a fake WhatsApp message by a mob that mistook him for a kidnapper. When people are dying senselessly we cannot hide behind the popular Twitter disclaimer that a retweet is not an endorsement — it absolutely is. It’s impossible to legally regulate what people spread and unknowingly instigate. The best option is a huge campaign that urges citizens to self censor and understand that spreading anything they’re not a hundred per cent sure of, is morally repugnant.
Fake news has always been around, it’s just that it’s earlier avatar was veiled in faux innocence under the far less evil term—gossip. One often stumbles on those annoying profundities that talking about other people is the lowest form of conversation but people (guiltily) do it all the time anyway. There must be a reason why celebrity gossip is a $3 billion industry. Why do we love it? It’s the fascination of a bird’s eye view on the life not led, peppered, liberally, with a whole lot of schadenfreude; tales of doom and other people’s spectacular failures serve as a cautionary example, or provide some relief that our own choices were not as bad as we originally thought. The real danger is when gossip turns into alarming misinformation that manipulates the masses who can’t separate the riff from the raff in a post-truth world.