THERE’S no shortage of colourful characters in Karachi. One such character — a wandering beggar clearly not in command of his mental faculties — was a regular fixture in the Boat Basin area.

While begging and wiping cars with a stained rag, he would also harangue his targets: He was next in line to be COAS, he said, except he lost out due to Zia who — along with America, India and Israel — was determined to kill ZAB. With the arrival of Benazir, his ire shifted to ZAB’s daughter who, he claimed, ignored his efforts to save her father.

Later, his target was Musharraf who — like Zia — had also denied him his due. The song remained the same, even if the lyrics did change somewhat. Most ignored him as he tried to penetrate their air-conditioned metal cocoons with his conspiracy theories. Some gave him money to send him on his way and some others actually listened — perhaps as a way to pass the time before the light turned green. What no one did was to get on their phones and call everyone they know while shouting ‘GUESS WHAT I JUST HEARD?’

And yet, while we do ignore the rantings of madmen on the street, if the said rant were to be typed and WhatsApped, even the seemingly well-educated and savvy have no qualms forwarding nonsense to everyone from their parents to their plumbers.

Most of it is harmless: No, eating fruit on an empty stomach will not give you cancer. But then it gets ugly: conspiracy and allegations are passed around as fact. Doctored photos, quotes and videos circulate, inflaming passions and even leading to murder.

Even the ‘savvy’ have no qualms forwarding nonsense.

Since May last year, at least 30 people have been lynched in various Indian states due to rumours spread via WhatsApp: news is circulated alleging that child abduction gangs are looking for victims whom they then press into slavery or harvest for organs. The posts are complete with pictures of ‘arrested’ culprits and victims which, while genuine, are not related to current cases but are lifted from older, unrelated cases.

The messages are also written in the native language of the states being targeted, indicating an organised and planned effort to fan mistrust. Efforts to counter the misinformation have proven less than successful and one person who was sent to inform villagers about the facts by the government was himself lynched. Why is this happening?

One reason is the combination of digital penetration and information illiteracy; India has some 530 million smartphone users, and WhatsApp users have risen to 200m, a nearly 300 per cent increase in three years. In this atmosphere, while the information-savvy may mark a message as dubious or spam if it is received from multiple sources, to others the frequency of the message is confirmation.

To paraphrase Goebbels, a lie, if forwarded enough times, becomes the truth. But of course, a simple rumour isn’t enough to make people go out and kill, unless there are existing tensions that can be exploited and amplified. So where there are tribal tensions, the messages refer to ‘outsiders’ and where there are Hindu-Muslim tensions, the purveyors of falsehood exploit those.

Case in point: the recent rape of a minor Hindu girl in Mandsaur saw protests by both local Hindu and Muslim communities against the perpetrator, but what went viral was a Photoshopped image showing that the Muslim protest was in fact in support of the killer. Countless examples abound. Again, in an atmosphere where ‘cow vigilantes’ wantonly lynch Muslims on mere suspicion, one can see why such messages find an eager audience.

Helping this along are sections of Indian mainstream media, which routinely have sensationalised — and often completely fake — stories that exploit communal tensions for the sake of ratings, and if the stunning exposé by Cobra­post is to be believed, for tons of cash.

By contrast, journalists critical of Narendra Modi or Hindutva extremism are subjected to protracted and sustained hate campaigns on social media, seemingly with the blessing and supervision of the BJP’s IT cell; even Sushma Swaraj was not spared the wrath of this foul-mouthed cyber army. Citing serial purveyors of fake news like Opindia and Postcard News (the founder of which is followed by Modi on Twitter), these troll armies use the same tactics as those spreading the child abduction rumours.

Given that fake news and propaganda are essential parts of the Modi machine, one wonders how serious the government is in tackling this menace. Is the death of 30 people simply collateral damage in the propaganda war? WhatsApp has been late off the mark, much like Facebook and fake news, and is only now saying that it is planning to fund research into combating this menace news.

Again, here there is a conflict between principle and profit. Filling the void are independent fact-checking sites like AltNews, SmHoaxSlayer and Boomlive, who wage a valiant battle against this phenomenon, only to have the targets of their fact-checking in turn call the fact-checkers ‘fake’.

The writer is a journalist.

Twitter: @zarrarkhuhro

Published in Dawn, July 9th, 2018


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