When technology spurs killers

Anxiety — an emotion that is the lynchpin of our collective existence in the world. Our world — one where we want answers instantaneously, where information flows in nanoseconds, where mass hysteria can be triggered by mass postings on Internet media — Twitter, WhatsApp, Facebook, et al. Even as Twitter wars between opposing ideological groups have occupied much news space, the damage caused by misinformation, outright lies, and rumours on WhatsApp is considerable and has been directly linked to instances of lynching in the recent past.
It is unfair to blame the media alone. Indeed, for any rumour mongering to succeed there has to be a fertile ground of highly agitated volatile mass of humanity, already on edge. We have, unfortunately, allowed our society to degenerate to a level where mutual trust and accommodation have receded and the sharp edges that they blunted, indeed camouflaged, are all too visible. The highly interconnected and interrelated world has proved to be fertile ground for planting misinformation. Soon it spreads, and just the fact that it is common knowledge is often considered to be enough reason to believe that it is true.

Rumour on steroids

What used to be said over a neighbourhood fence or in a closed group can now be magnified manifold with technology, which allows everything to be quickly escalated. The power of print to propagate the world was long recognised, but there was a certain commitment to truth, accountability and anything that violated this was called ‘pamphleteering’. Newspapers were a serious business that disseminated credible news. A sub-section, often called the ‘penny press’ or ‘yellow press’, catering to the crowd that wanted salacious journalism.
The ability of technology to enhance the message is well recognised. It is not a coincidence that governments regulated both the radio and the television. The liberalisation of the electronic media allowed private players more access and led to, among other things, the 24-hour news cycle, if not hourly. It has often been debated that this is what debased news since it is an insatiable beast. The hurry to feed it and be the first off the block has often led to unverified information, including tweets and WhatsApp messages being picked by mainstream media instantly, sometimes with negative consequences. It is a vicious cycle that needs to be understood and broken.
Another major change is that technology has introduced the option of anonymity for the person who seeks it on the Net. The idea of anonymity started with the best of intentions. In the early 1980s, the founders and early Internet evangelists expected that the World Wide Web would create a level playing field for sharing information and other collaborative activities among people, organisations, governments, and businesses. In 1996, there was a “Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace,” by John Perry Barlow, and the mode was full of optimism.
However, what starts with noble intentions can also fail because it may be dependent on people who may not share such values. Even as the Internet provides the necessary infrastructure for global interaction, and is integrated into the everyday life of every modern society, its ugly side has raised concern among those very people who founded and nurtured it.

A foretaste of the future

One of the largest early social networking experiments on the Internet was America Online or AOL. It also gave us a foretaste of the future — at one time AOL forums acquired a reputation for being a haven for paedophiles! The charge was not warranted, but not entirely unwarranted either.
Social interaction at an unprecedented scale was the promise of many of the early movers — SocialNet, Match.com, Meetup.com, many cropped up before and during the time Facebook was born, but they were all to be eclipsed by Mark Zuckerberg’s brainchild.
With so much use, the possibility of abuse was ever present. Indeed, the anonymity, rather the ability to hide behind the handles or screen names, seemed to unleash the uncivil beast in computer users. Trolling has a long history on the Net, as do disinformation campaigns, all aided by anonymity.

Facebook & WhatsApp

While the West focused on Facebook and the damage it caused to the American democracy and institutions within that nation, in India, it is the other app that the social media behemoth owns, WhatsApp, which is used as a tool to spread disinformation.
India has more than 20 crore active WhatsApp users. The country is the biggest market for the platform, which has become ubiquitous in a mostly mobile internet environment. Political parties have used the app and other social media services for their propaganda. While the BJP rules the roost, other parties, too, have upped their social media presence. Facebook is said to have 25 crore Indian users and has also been widely exploited to mislead, misinform and misguide people.
Electioneering gives oxygen to the worst kind of propaganda. The recent Karnataka elections had the criticism of the state government, false claims about Hindus being murdered by Muslims, and even a fake BBC poll purportedly showing a BJP win in the state.

Malicious messages

While people widely acknowledge that there is a lot of fake news on social media, they find it difficult to identify it. In a heated atmosphere, vision becomes narrow, and prejudice or anxiety finds an outlet in supporting “evidence”. Now that the country is in a perpetual election mode, the chances of reasoned or logical weighing of what comes on the net have shrunk dramatically.
Over 29 Indians were killed since the last year in nine states, including Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Tripura, West Bengal and Maharashtra. The killers were fellow citizens. Their motive? A belief, based on the rumours of child-lifting, that the individuals were child-lifters. And where did the rumours come from? WhatsApp messages!
We need to keep in mind that WhatsApp is a platform that is for interpersonal interaction with end-to-end encryption. Thus, the messages came from someone they knew. Often, that someone was mindless in forwarding a message. It is wrong to believe that the disclaimer “Forwarded as received” absolves the sender of any responsibility.

Government response

As outrage arose over the lynching deaths, the government responded by asking the company to be more proactive in countering fake news. The company’s response: “WhatsApp cares deeply about people’s safety and their ability to freely communicate. We don’t want our services used to spread harmful misinformation and believe this is a challenge that companies and societies should address.”
The company has announced some measures, but more needs to be done, including finding ways for users to flag suspicious messages. Another more radical suggestion is of tagging forwards so that they are no longer private and the tail is visible to the users. This measure would help in establishing the provenance of such messages/pictures/videos.
WhatsApp is a platform, an electronic messenger. Police forces in various states have often used it for finding missing children, too. Even as WhatsApp takes measures to minimise its abuse, we need to remember that the cure lies not with technology alone, but with how we use it. A healthy environment, one where suspicion has not replaced trust, would allow for a moment’s reflection after the receipt of an inflammatory message. That moment could save a life.

This article by Roopinder Singh was published in The Tribune on July 8, 2018,

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