Not everyone has the desire or the eye to identify and be bothered if an image has been photoshopped to influence their thoughts. Reversing the rot requires us all to be aware of the political trickery we are being made conduits for.A month ago, I started peeping into smartphones of dumbpeople in Mumbai locals. I found that men and women, if not tapping away on Candy Crush Saga, are most likely forwarding a WhatsApp message. I discovered men in their forties could go on forwarding sprees, looking specifically for old texts to forward, and then making sure they go to at least a dozen contacts. I found youngsters who use their train journeys to swipe through image after image, video after video, all received as forwards and waiting to be broadcast further.
The generous sharing, I observed, is no more just jokes, greetings, or “send-this-to-eight-people-to-get-lucky” texts that they used to be just a decade ago. In 2017, political figures and Bharat Mata, I concluded, are the way forward, pun intended.
Religion, Marx said, is the opium of the masses. As I saw a group of five men in a train zealously passing a phone on to each other so that each could watch a half-a-minute clip of a burning building, I wondered if today, Marx might have wanted to be more specific by replacing religion with “fake news” and WhatsApp forwards. (That, if religion does not already have fake news covered, which I have strong suspicion is true.) Today, you’re more likely to be fooled by propaganda inside your mobile phone, than by claims of a tantrik or a baba.
My experiment started inadvertently out of distress. Last month, a journalist reached out to me to know my views on, among other things, the disturbing phenomenon of fake news. Till then, my passion for observing public discourse had obviously led me to fret much about fake news and propaganda, but suddenly, the distress became personal. I was unsettled because for years, I’d produced and worked to make viral what could very well literally be “fake news”. In less than half a decade’s time, the phrase today stands for something so very caustic and ugly that I suddenly realized I’ve got an Albatross around my neck.
Two days after that, I received a forwarded image on a WhatsApp group I’m part of, which, in the context of my ongoing conversation with the scribe, agitated me no end. It was a news channel still of Prime Minister Narendra Modi announcing demonetization, with the flashing headlines edited convincingly to show that a nationwide ban on liquor had just been announced, effective midnight.
What unsettled me was not just the sudden realization that a few years ago, I as a satirist could very well have been the creator of that photoshopped picture, for entirely different intentions. I was bothered also because this WhatsApp group had as its members young changemakers who I immensely respect for their active work in education.
My late personal involvement with the menace has much to do with the fact that I do not get or send WhatsApp forwards myself. My Facebook news feed is normally clean and customized to give me only the things I want. But one month into my Mumbai local experiment after the journalist made me aware of my Albatross, I am, finally, helplessly angry.
Forwarding messages is challenging our intelligence
It may be easy to dismiss each forwarded message and misinformation laced with nationalistic and political propaganda as harmless by itself. But in today’s polarized atmosphere, receiving such a message and having the power to forward it does the disturbing task of amplifying the desirability of having such views. Xenophobic nationalism and political or religious hero-worship may fast be becoming unfashionable (but far from obsolete) virtues among the progressive urban youth, but are still very much desirable qualities to have for the commonest of men.
When you forward a message, you transmit information. Being such a source of new, interesting information is a dangerous ego-booster – nothing less than opium for self-esteem – in a society still coming to terms with how to handle overdose of facts and opinions. Ego once boosted has no end, and propaganda once sparked has no shame. When the two come together, we have intelligent human beings exercising their constitutional right to express freely, only to create gradual intellectual destruction of the world.
For all the bluffs we catch and good people we doubt in real life, humans haven’t really been able to crack the long-term impact of political propaganda yet. Not everyone has the desire or the eye to identify and be bothered if an image has been photoshopped to influence their thoughts.
This is the time to use extreme discretion when we forward messages and share Facebook posts. These are times to protect the intellectually vulnerable and educate them about the possibilities that WhatsApp forwards bring. Satire and misinformation need to be carefully distinguished, and we need to support each other to keep the fake out.
Often, some of us might even recognize the fake but still forward it because we want to share something we found amusing. Each forward seems harmless, and each fake news story sounds mere fun and creativity, till it reaches the recipient who will use the story to decide what opinions to have and whether he likes or dislikes someone. The message does not have to be forwarded even thrice to reach such a person; it could well be one of the 10 you forward the text to.
The scoundrel’s most far-reaching weapon yet
When I produced satire – only the medium, not the intent, was fake news – I knew that my work would stay safe within the web, among a limited number of readers, and with limited harms, not just because sharing was difficult then, but political discourse was simpler too. E-mail forwards were coming out of fashion. Smartphones were becoming commoner, but sharing images or videos over a mobile phone was expensive. SMS packs could help you transmit Santa Banta jokes and in those much more innocent days of discourse.
Around 2013, as I became inactive in satire, two things happened. Sharing through phones became easier, and political discourse became complex in the run-up to the 2014 elections. That these two things happened simultaneously, not just in India, but increasingly across the world, was not a mere coincidence, but that’s a different discussion. It was as if the political class was waiting for mobile-based social media, internet penetration, and multimedia sharing all this while.
As we graduated from text-based jokes to memes and more Indians moved to new smartphones with fancy apps, political powers found an opportunity that has in just about half a decade, threatened to undo the very foundations of how we perceive truth. If politics is the last refuge of a scoundrel, social media, it is clear now, is the scoundrel’s most far-reaching tool ever to challenge the intelligence of humans – from graduates to illiterates, rural to urban.
If I were still a satirist, I’d have ceased to operate actively solely because of the risk of my creations being misused and reaching the vulnerable. Propaganda has existed for long, but never before did the PR industry have something like social media and graphics technology to collude with to drain out of us what has helped us move forward as a species till now: quest for truth based on logic.
Fake news hurts everyone
Reversing the rot requires us all to forward responsibly and be aware of our own political role and the propaganda we are being made conduits for. Forwards are not just about vitriolic propaganda, but also about a lot of other misinformation, such as wrongly attributed quotes, modern superstitions (“Facebook will charge you fees starting next month”) and fake stories often meant to boost the sender’s ego. Messages like “UNESCO has declared India’s national anthem the best in the world” are used for many purposes other than just propaganda, often in full knowledge of the falsehood.
Fake news hurts everyone, because when real riots happen in our city, we may have become so sceptical about such information that we won’t believe a text message telling us so. The simplest way to save ourselves from the menace is to start ignoring all forwarded messages. We do not need to verify any news that comes through WhatsApp; news apps are a much better idea in the first place.
To stand up against any kind of WhatsApp forwards, we need to stand up against our close friends, colleagues and family members, for larger good. Are we ready?