The recent widespread consternation caused in several key Indian cities was blamed partly on doctored images of violence circulating on social media. This phenomenon could well be a part of a larger problem of rampant scaremongering on social media.
When it resulted in people fleeing back to their distant homes, the questionable images on Facebook formed a case of evil spreading evil.
However, I often come across purportedly noble messages accompanied with dubious photographs that are shared around by grown up people. One such photo was that of a dead man lying sprawled on a road with a gruesome gash on his head and blood gushing out – with no reliable source quoted, I safely assume it was photoshopped. The message? Wear a helmet!
This image does nothing to warn about the bad driving habits that result in ghastly accidents. Another one is a warning about a gang that throws eggs at windshields of moving cars, obstructing visibility by 92.5% and setting out to loot passengers.
I’m sure this ‘gang’ would have heard of black oil paint!
Yet another one warns about business cards laced with date-rape drugs, and the list goes on…
The Roots of Scaremongering
First, it used to be only chain mails, but the expanding use of social media today has made it possible to spread fear like a wildfire up a hill of dry vegetation.
Scaremongering is far from new; long before the internet became commonplace, there have been numerous stories of hoax phone callers deriving their cheap thrills in the aftermath of a man-made calamity.
What is it that drives certain people to spread fear instead of calm?
Without delving into a complex discussion on human psychology, there are some ways to explain the problem. One likelihood is that the originators of hoaxes bear resentment towards society and vent their anger through fictitious and scary messages.
They could also be motivated by no particular agenda, like those scribbling graffiti on the walls of ancient monuments. In many cases, perfectly sane people share fearful messages and pictures out of a concern for their loved ones.
The matter is also complicated by sections of the mass media that tend to sensationalize news stories to boost viewership. Stiff competition among news organizations has made some of the players prone to conspiracy theories, resulting in calls for the constitution of a strong regulatory body to keep them in check.
On Trusting Internet Information
When I first logged on the internet more than a decade ago, I tended to believe in most things that appeared on the monitor screen.
I have seen new users being encouraged to take the plunge because of the ease of use and freedom with which information can be instantly obtained. India has the world’s fastest growing internet population, with an estimated 41% rise over the last year, and 124 million internet users.
However, as millions of new users go online each year, there is a greater need for safety practices both on the internet in general and social media in particular, since the latter is increasingly becoming a central access point for huge amounts of information.
Fighting the Pollution on Social Media
Another site called skeptics.stackexchange.com that relies on collaborative contributions from knowledgeable users is aimed at discussing scientific skepticism.
If a certain warning that appeared in our Facebook timelines hasn’t been echoed by the world’s leading news sites, it should be taken with a grain of salt and not passed on.
Both new and old users need to be warned that cyberspace vandals are their next door neighbors, and distinguishing the truth from the falsehood is our top priority in the Social Media Age.
To what extent do you believe rumors and exaggerated warnings are affecting our social media use?
What do you think it the best way to guard ourselves from such messages? Your views are welcome!