THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: It will be a mere understatement to say there are scaremongering and false propaganda on WhatsApp and other social media platforms, given the havoc they cause to social peace. There is no absolute tool to stem the menace. But law enforcers can reduce the impact through heightened vigil and stringent implementation of the law wherever possible because most offences are committed in distant lands. The menace manifests as character assassination or as disinformation in the case of the health advisory misattributed to oncologist VP Gangadharan and as baseless story of ill-treatment at Thiruvananthapuram Medical College Hospital. The list is unending.
Such blatant misuse and abuse of the vital information highway dent the credibility of the medium and when a real alert is on, people tend to ignore it.
Is there light at the end of the tunnel? “Not much, for now, because the internet is such a loose ecosystem, making it virtually impossible to nail wrongdoers as opposed to the conventional print or visual media, bound by established laws”, says cyber media analyst V.K. Adarsh. A conventional media platform publishing a libelous item can be hauled up in the court but not a social networking website such as Facebook or Twitter because they are the marketplace! “You do not prosecute the marketplace for letting a vendor sell rotten stuff. You can prosecute the vendor, not the platform that allowed him to sell. Facebook is also like the marketplace. In other words, you do not prosecute the highway for an accident caused by a vehicle. Of course, a road unscientifically constructed will make the contractor responsible. But that’s a different case”, says Mr Adarsh.
He likens the free-for-all social media to the early phase of motor vehicles when people were scared by its accident potential than lured by its benefits. The world has mastered the art of riding by the rule book that aberrations are disposed of by law. The internet is also in the same predicament, which will get resolved in course of time. For instance, a decade ago parents wondered what would happen to children exposed to the internet. But such fears have proved to be unfounded as users became aware of its pluses and minuses.
The early phase of internet is similar to the village in Aravindan’s film, Oridathu, where rustic folks are initially shaken by the arrival of electricity, and a lorry breezing in from Tamil Nadu. They thought electricity and the lorry will bust the peace and serenity of village life. Misapprehensions persisted till they started enjoying the fruits of modernity. Internet users hopefully will reach the same level of awareness soon. The IT Act of 2000 is among the least amended, necessitating incorporation of more stringent provisions to tighten the law and prosecute as many offenders as possible to lend a deterrence effect.
“But that is not easy. If those who commit a cyber crime are available within the country, prosecution is plausible. But the internet does not respect geographic boundaries, leaving prosecution virtually impossible in many cases. There’s no way out because most cyber offences are the handiwork of socially challenged people. Recent instances of mob reaction to cyber misinformation actually hold a mirror up to society. The internet reflects us”, says Mr Adarsh. The way out is to tighten the law, tighten screws on offenders without in any way undermining the democratic nature of the internet.
There are three internet gateways at Mumbai, Chennai and Agartala. “It is internet which invigorates democracy, even by allowing whistleblowers to sell their wares through fake IDs. You can trace out the source. But the corrupt elements nailed by the expose thru fake ID will not pursue the source, fearing further exposure. The whistleblower also enjoys the backing of millions negating a possible reprisal by the corrupt”, says Mr Adarsh. Strengthen democracy but also respect individual privacy and citizen rights, adds cyber expert J. Murali. Many will continue to suffer in silence. Those whose privacy is outraged might become introverts and even commit suicide when they can no more face social repercussions.
Celebrities and public officials even find their phones to be useless if someone discloses their numbers. The average user can opt to weed out dubious and suspicious accounts and when many do it on a regular basis, the generation and forwards of misinformation will slow down. Schools can start to sensitize students quite early on, on the proper use of the social media. End users should become more sensible and discreet in using content and stop forwarding likes to all and sundry. But there is no mechanism to stop those who derive vicarious pleasure out of someone’s miseries or misfortunes.
Social media was abuzz with reports of a kidnapping racket being active in Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram and Malappuram. There were pictures of gypsies posted on social media and WhatsApp, portraying them as part of child-lifter gangs. Similarly, fake messages were spread about rag pickers and junk collectors from neighbouring states, suggesting they had come in with the intention of kidnapping children.
Panic among migrant workers
Last year 400 migrant workers fled Kozhikode after a fake video clip showed local people lynching a worker. A fake audio clip on WhatsApp said a Bengali worker was beaten badly by locals in Kozhikode. Later DGP Loknath Behara came with a counter blitz on the social media through his recorded messages in Hindi and Bangla.
North-Eastern people targeted
In 2012 thousands of migrant worker form North-East fled Bengaluru due to rumours that they are going to be targeted. Rumours were spread through WhatsApp and other social network platforms.
WhatsApp messages and Facebook posts about black stickers pasted on windows of houses continue to create panic. Posts say stickers are being pasted by child-lifters to identify houses with children and also by burglars for marking targets. However, glass traders clarified that stickers were used to prevent damage to glass panes during transportation.
Seven lynched in Jharkhand
Last year seven persons were lynched by villagers in Jharkhand following rumours spread through WhatsApp about child-lifters on the prowl. The message in Hindi said "suspected child-lifters are carrying sedatives, injections, spray, cotton and small towels. They speak Hindi and Bangla.” Later it was found that the seven victims had come to attend a ceremony and it was a case of mistaken identity which led to the horrific incident.
Fake message on cancer cure
Cancer physician V P Gangadharan had filed a complaint with Cyber Cell over a fake WhatsApp doing the rounds in his name, claiming lime juice is enough to cure cancer and there was no need for chemotherapy. All these messages carried Gangadharan's photo.
Fake Facebook posts and WhatsApp app messages were widely circulated to create confusion among the people about Measles Rubella Vaccination campaign in the state. The campaign created huge confusion in minds of people, adversely affecting the vaccination programme, especially in Malappuram.
A fabricated WhatsApp message circulated extensively in Chennai about a woman robbing housewives on the pretext of being LPG cylinder technician spread panic. Later the police intervened to check the spread of the fake message and nab those behind the racket.
Fake messages about hotels selling dog meat in parts of the state were part of a devious campaign against hotels doing good business.