TNN Bureau. Updated: 7/24/2018 1:06:17 PM Features

Once people were hooked to jokes, propagandists took over to peddle fake news and hatred. When popular social media network platforms entered our lives, they became a novel and entertaining way of keeping in touch with friends and family. It was a dramatic and monumental change. It marked a major milestone in the way communication evolved. The word ‘evolve’ advisedly, because like all evolutionary markers, this transformation also had mutants and developments that ran counter to the word, and has had frightening repercussions. And nowhere has the mutation been more terrifying than right here in India, with lives being claimed at regular intervals because of wild rumours that are being spread across these cyber-highways at lightning speed. Of the applications – or ‘apps’ – that are stalking the social corridors today, WhatsApp is right in front. It is a huge hit in India. Of the estimated 1.2 billion people who use this instant messaging platform globally, 230 million are in India alone.

The staggering numbers were enough to make several groups sit up and take notice. Soon, after jokes, videos and other ‘fun stuff,’ this platform became the propaganda tool for various vested interests. So far, still so good. Sociologists and communication gurus began marvelling at the way the Indian propaganda machine had adapted to this new technology. Creative videos and subtle messages began flooding the network. People were hooked. The new breed of propaganda specialists, who were already in place ghost-tweeting and managing cyber platform accounts on behalf of their busy bosses, stepped in to utilise this platform as well. It was still an evolving organism, and people watched enthralled as it grew, stretched, and kept changing on an almost daily basis. Hints of it becoming not-such-a-friendly entity began bubbling up, and a miasma began emanating from it, as blatantly provocative messages appeared. By then, the menace of ‘forwards’ had already taken a stranglehold on the will of users.

People began sending these messages in an almost mesmeric trance. Fingers began responding, commenting and replying feverishly, even helplessly, as the addiction became full-blown, with all the attendant symptoms. And the base of millions of users meant that these messages flashed across the nation in milliseconds. There were many categories of these ‘forwarders’ that encompassed every strata of society. Pictures, videos and inflammatory messages began to flood the platform, to the disbelief and disgust of a small minority. Rumour-mongers had a field-day spreading unsubstantiated messages: from AIDS in aerated drinks to earthquakes, tsunamis and the end of the world. Videos of nature’s destructions in one part of the globe were touted and forwarded as happening in some unfortunate corner of India. The list of fake forwards is frustratingly endless.

The madness took tragic overtones as these fake bits of information reached scores of self-appointed trouble-shooters who began reacting immediately and violently. A lady from Malaysia visiting the tranquil little town of Thiruvannamalai was caught and beaten to death barely a couple of months ago because she distributed chocolates to local children, after rumours of child-lifters appeared on WhatsApp. A group of people in Bengaluru tied up a man and thrashed him till he died just a few weeks ago, even as he was looking at them helplessly, because there were fake messages of thieves from ‘other states’ entering the city and people had been asked to remain alert. The hapless victim turned out to be a migrant labourer from Rajasthan who didn’t know a word of the local language, or indeed any south Indian language. The video of that thrashing is hauntingly sad. There are several instances of this fake-message-madness claiming innocent lives, as many have taken on the roles of judges and executioners, delivering their sentences instantly and violently. The problem is so out of control that WhatsApp had to send out messages, advertisements and appeals for the responsible use of their platform. They have released updates that make it possible to identify originally-written messages from ‘forwards.’ The scary part is that this new technology will be available only to those who download these updates.

The scarier part is the fact that any forward could be copied, tweaked and changed so that it appears to have been written originally. The scariest part is that the high-tech one-to-one encryption makes it impossible for the owners of WhatsApp to monitor or filter messages. And it would be a blatant violation of privacy if they did. It appears to be a bleak and dark cyber landscape that awaits us. There are, of course, still thousands who use WhatsApp as a positive, effective tool for communication and entertainment, keeping in touch in a warm and positive way. The new WhatsApp updates are out, and we can only hope that the week-long advertising campaign may begin to make a change, however infinitesimal it may be. Users and forwarders of this potentially useful and entertaining app need to take a deep breath and pause -- it may make the difference between life and death. It is certainly time to wake up. And smell the miasmic odour that is filling the air.

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