A few days ago on Facebook, a Chennai-based model and photographer wrote about how he saved a girl from being gangraped. It seemed a little far-fetched but it was an earnest account of pitiful screams, a kind autowala who emerged from nowhere (at precisely the right moment) and the bad guys who tried to strangle him before vanishing into the dark. If we didn’t live in a country where violence against women wasn’t so depressingly endemic, we might have questioned it some more. He posted a couple of pictures that showed, convincing, bloody lesions on his neck and signed off with: “Don’t be afraid to face a situation because you’re alone. If the cause is right, the world will join you right away!”
The sweet declaration of how the universe conspires to rush to your assistance when your intentions are honourable led to this post being shared over 50,000 times. The papers covered him and headlines on news websites went, “Chennai youngster saves girl from three men! We salute you!” The hashtag #Hero was trending furiously, his valour celebrated while the police were berated for never being around as usual. Forced to respond, they followed investigative procedure and the story unravelled from there. The so-called hero, who was really an overgrown kid with a hyper imagination, couldn’t even identify the place where this incident allegedly happened. He couldn’t explain the sequence of events and it turns out he was sozzled at the time. The mysterious girl is untraceable, so is the autowala. The case is closed.
But for 72 hours, over 20 lakh Indians thought Vasanth Paul was an extraordinary youngster of remarkable calibre. His juvenile fabrication is a lesson in how social media revels in making not just stupid people famous but even compulsive liars into sought after shooting stars — albeit briefly. Everyone fell for it. Since there is no precedence to this, it’s unclear what the law says about sending the police on a wild goose chase looking for rapists where none existed. Airports across India receive daily threats and the centre is mulling life imprisonment with the Suppression of Unlawful Acts to deter hoax callers. There will, eventually, have to be a zero tolerance law for spreading dangerous lies on social media. Especially when those lies waste the states’ already very stressed resources.
We live in a world where it’s shockingly easy to distort reality and self righteously proclaim your own heroism. You can ridicule those who are professionally trained to tackle crime, and become an online sensation. Your version of truth will find takers, your own friends whose revulsions mirror your own. Is it always wrong to lie or grossly exaggerate? Absolutely nobody would argue for the whole truth and nothing but the truth in all circumstances. Most of the minor lies we speak are a social lubricant, a part of conversation. Especially on Facebook. It’s wholly acceptable to post a picture, filtered and edited, where you look thrilled when you’re actually miserable. What is the line we don’t cross? When you make up a story, cast yourself as the saviour, even if the intention wasn’t to create chaos, it’s deception. It’s damaging to reputations, it’s eroding trust in public institutions and must be treated as a crime. The learning: hard news is still most reliable in a newspaper and for the happy re-tweeters and re-sharers, try to expand your news sources beyond what’s trending.