A few months ago, I started peeping into the smartphones of people in Mumbai locals. I found that most men and women, if not tapping away on Candy Crush Saga, were most likely forwarding WhatsApp messages. I discovered that men in their 40s could go on forwarding sprees, looking specifically for old texts to forward, and then making sure they went to at least a dozen contacts. I found youngsters who used their train journeys to swipe through image after image, video after video, all received as forwards and waiting to be broadcast further.
This generous sharing, we know, is no longer limited to the jokes, greetings, or "send-this-to-eight-people-to-get-lucky" texts of a decade ago. In 2017, political figures and Bharat Mata seemed to become the way forward, pun intended.
Today, you're more likely to be fooled by propaganda inside your mobile phone than by the claims of a tantrik or a baba.
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 religious building, I wondered if today Marx might have wanted to replace "religion" with "fake news" and WhatsApp forwards. (That, if religion does not already have fake news covered—after all, aren't religion and God the world's earliest fake news?) Today, you're more likely to be fooled by propaganda inside your mobile phone than by the claims of a tantrik or a baba.
Forwarding messages belies our intelligence
You might be tempted to dismiss each forwarded message and misinformation laced with nationalistic and political propaganda as harmless by itself. But in today's polarised atmosphere, receiving such a message and having the power to forward it does the disturbing task of making those views more desirable to have. Xenophobic nationalism and political or religious hero-worship may fast be becoming unfashionable (but far from obsolete) virtues among progressive urban youth, but are still very much desirable qualities to have for much of the wider populace.
Being a source of new, interesting information (even if fake) is a dangerous ego-booster—like opium for self-esteem. And an ego once boosted has no end, and propaganda once sparked has no shame. 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.
Each forward seems harmless, and each fake news story sounds like fun, until it reaches someone who will use it to decide what opinions to have...
For those of us who can identify propaganda, these are times to protect the intellectually vulnerable and educate them about the possibilities that WhatsApp forwards bring. Often, some of us might knowingly forward a fake just to share something we found amusing. But we must be cognizant that each forward seems harmless, and each fake news story sounds like fun, until it reaches someone who will use it to decide what opinions to have and whether he likes or dislikes someone.
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. Smartphones were becoming commoner, but sharing images or videos over the phone was expensive.
Around 2013, as I became inactive in satire, two things happened. Sharing through phones became easier, and political discourse became more 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 the illiterate, from the rural to the urban.
To stand up against such forwards, we need to stand up against our close friends, colleagues and family members, for the larger good. Are we ready?
Propaganda has existed for long, but social media and graphics' technology are now draining us of what has helped us move forward as a species so far: quest for truth based on logic.
Fake news hurts everyone
Reversing the rot requires us all to send forwards (if at all) 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!
Of course, to stand up against such forwards, we need to stand up against our close friends, colleagues and family members, for the larger good. Are we ready?