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Social media pitfalls

March 11, 2013

TO every action there is an opposite and equal reaction; these days, a caveat is being added: except in the media, where you’ll find overreaction.

This the country’s electronic media has gone on to prove. The smallest cause for worry — and Pakistan has no shortage of these — and the media machine goes into overdrive.

But most viewers, I would imagine, have become savvy enough. This is in any case a country where any scrap of information tends to be pounced upon, examined from all angles possible, especially those of the fringe, and then often turned on its head.

In terms of the social media, we are less adept — though in the interests of fairness it should be noted that the world generally is slowly getting used to a method of communication that can cause a snippet of information to spread like wildfire, mask the old as the new, mix fact and fiction and effortlessly blur boundaries. It says something that the term used is “going viral”.

In a city such as Karachi, that lives on its nerves — and for good reason, generally — the spread of information through routes such as the Internet and SMS text messaging can be dangerous, given that not everyone stops to discern between fact and fiction, ‘olds’ and ‘news’, before sending it on with an added fillip.

Before you know it, rumours can end up being taken as fact, often simply by virtue of the fact that they are being discussed everywhere, with everyone adding an ‘it happened to my mother’s friend’s cousin’s daughter’ account. The social media means that urban legends are able to claim larger and larger numbers of victims very fast.

These days, the scare going around elite schools in Karachi is that a group of students was kidnapped from outside their school. Several parents I know are consequently keeping their children home.

I do not know whether anyone has tried to ascertain the veracity of this scare — though the number of students said to have been kidnapped (around 50) — makes it sounds unlikely. But efforts have been made to trace the veracity of two stories of kidnappings outside a popular café and a mall (not Dolmen Mall). It seems that these accounts are based on rumours going viral.

Similar seems to be the case with stories about gangs roaming the elite residential sectors of the city, abducting and raping young women. In some of these accounts, an expensive black car is said to be the vehicle used by these gangs. But the couple of apparently first-hand accounts that are attributable to specific names (as opposed to unnamed purported victims) do not provide details convincing enough to conclude that the scare is anything but an urban legend.

(In a similar vein, some will remember that well over a decade ago, another myth that hit the elite in urban Pakistan was that the streets were being paced by gangs of men carrying syringes filled with AIDS-infected blood, ready to plunge into the arm of an “immodestly” dressed woman.)

This is not to definitively say, obviously, that no woman was ever assaulted or no one was ever abducted. The point is, though, that one or two incidents can spark off an urban legend that, through the social media, spreads so rapidly as to become larger than its component parts.

It’s an odd thing to have to say, but I’ve met of late more and more people from well-to-do Pakistan, generally women, confessing with something between defiance and embarrassment that they no longer read the newspapers or listen to the news. This is to some extent regrettably understandable, given that domestic news on any given day is guaranteed to depress and disturb. But what that means is, they are also cutting themselves off from credible news sources.

Admittedly, the nasty stereotype about women through the ages, across the world, has been that they get their information from the gossip circuit. Today, the gossip circuit encompasses the social media, too, where rumours can spread like viruses and a thousand pitfalls await to swallow whole the unwary.

Users need to be more discerning, smarter, more aware of the flaws and the character of the mediums they are using to communicate.

And, just to make my argument fair — before you nod and smile fondly at the foolishness of Woman — the social media can trip up anyone, including savvy swimmers in the media sea such as journalists.

In 2009, Neda Agha Soltan was shot on the streets of Tehran and the light dying from her eyes was caught on a cellphone camera. Needing a still, someone — it is thought a journalist — pulled a photograph from what he thought was her Facebook page; it was that image that went viral on the Internet and was displayed on thousands of placards and posters around the world, everywhere she and the Iranians’ cause had sympathy.

Except, this photograph was actually of a different woman, Neda Soltani, who taught university-level English. Though she and the slain woman’s family tried to set the record straight, it had already gone too far; Soltani managed to flee just before the Iranian secret police came to pick her up. In her book, My Stolen Face, she says the error ruined her life, forced as she was to live for years as a refugee in Germany.

The writer is a member of staff.