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The Politics of Fake News and WhatsApp Forwards

October 11, 2017 10:06 IST

'This is a Frankenstein's monster that will engulf us all in its rage and greed.'
'This fake news/WhatsApp forwards industry -- and especially, the use of it in politics -- is one of the biggest threats to our world today,' warns Amit Mehra.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh

The politics of fake news and fake WhatsApp forwards originate from Nigerian scam emails.

Our gullibility has no boundaries, unlike our nations.

It was in the mid 1990s that I first noticed these emails of lottery win scams. Typically, the message would read, 'You have won a lottery of millions of dollars' or a pot of gold. 'Contact us with your information so that we can transfer it to you'.

Over the years, the content got innovative and elaborate.

I found these mails amusing initially, but later started reading about criminal cases that told me that many amongst us, the world over, were falling for these obvious scams.

You do a little research and you will be shocked to know how many amongst us, including educated folk, were victims of Nigerian fake email scams.

I am not getting into data because I wish to make a larger and more important point. I was brought up in a time when we could discuss social issues without having to validate each and every aspect of our concern with diagrams and data.

I believe even today, we don't need data to tell us that we need to save ourselves from dangers like global warming, communal hate, terrorism, violence against women, prejudice, racism, casteism, etc.

This is one issue that threatens to dwarf even such big evils that exist in our societies the world over.

There were and still are so many of us who are fooled due to our gullibility. The cost of executing these scams was and still is negligible with no means of tracing the sources.

Over the years, the cyber police and technology have made some advances to mitigate the risks, but such scams continue.

Most of us just put such mails in spam or phishing folders when we receive them or block numbers, WhatsApp messages, social media accounts, etc.

However, there are still many gullible people amongst us who are victims of these scams.

The mythical Mr Natwarlal has become mass mailing and social media fraud.

During the late 1990s, up to the first decade of the 2000s, even as Nigerian scam cases emerged, these fake email scams did not stop.

They evolved, diversified, to include fake SMS texts and whatever media was available to these criminals.

I have known many cases where many enterprising criminals tried to recreate such scams in real life situations. I have been a witness to one such scam which almost conned someone very close to me a few years ago.

He is a well placed, sharply intelligent, individual who has held very senior and responsible jobs all his life.

Luckily for him, he chose to involve me in dealing with this businessman who we later discovered was a conman. I was able to sense the scam immediately.

And when I started asking tough questions, the conman got angry and left immediately.

The person, who was saved by my tough questioning, initially got angry with me and thought I had spoilt his chances of making pots of easy money.

Since that person was close to me, I requested someone I knew to investigate the lucrative 'business offer' further and into the conman's claims. This friend returned with fact checks that proved I was right. It was a total con.

I have not shared names or the nature of the con as I do not wish to derail the point I am making in this article, which is a clear and present danger. Far more sinister and bigger than what these small time conmen were doing in the early part of this century.

Gullibility comes from the human desire to find a shortest line between two points. This is common in almost all human beings and exists in different measures.

None of us are bereft of this flaw. The richest amongst us and the poorest amongst us have been victims. The most powerful and most common powerless individuals have been victims of gullibility.

Today, it has taken a dangerous mass gullibility epidemic turn.

I knew then that it was a matter of time when this gullibility was exploited for other types of benefits.

The sudden and phenomenal growth of apps like WhatsApp, social media like blogs, Facebook, Twitter, etc, have paved the way for new types of crimes and before we knew it, came the dawn of fake news politics.

The Nigerian scams were to extract money. Fake news or WhatsApp forwards as a tool of communicating in politics have far more dangerous connotations.

It is unbelievable how educated, intelligent, street smart people amongst us, even today, in the age of information, become gullible and fall for fake news and WhatsApp forwards.

Most of the fake news scams are so easy to verify thanks to Google and so many official Web sites, data, and so many experts in every field available, accessible to almost all of us.

So many people have been saved from hardships, embarrassment and financial loss thanks to these tools. However, many of us continue to be victims of our gullibility. Sadly, some even knowingly.

Some of us know they are fake, but we still forward, share fake news, WhatsApp forwards because it supports our political views or objectives with no accountability.

Please note this is happening across the spectrum. No one political set can be blamed for it alone.

I have observed this enough to be objective and the purpose of this article will fail if we use it to pin blame on any one political side irrespective of how we feel.

Facts are facts. They can't be manipulated by our personal feelings.

Some believe fake news, WhatsApp forwards because they want to. That, many times, stems from faith or hate or sensationalism and by sharing such, they spread it too, knowingly or unknowingly.

The erstwhile Chinese whispers, rumour mongering has now been institutionalised as fake news and the WhatsApp industry.

I understand there are many Web sites, blogs, perhaps companies, which create such fake content to serve their political customers whoever they might be.

No aspect of our life is safe from this fake industry, but I am going to limit this article to politics as it concerns all of us anywhere in the world.

The people who create such content are nothing less than criminals. While some of us may think of them as people creating funny or non serious content, it is not that.

It is a crime because it leads to influencing how people are informed or rather misinformed and hence wrongly respond to serious issues.

When the facts come out -- as the truth always and eventually does -- the victims pay dearly, but in the case of politics, the whole nation pays too.

Also, the issue loses credibility. Be it corruption or communal violence or racism or gender equality, global warming, all issues have been targeted by this fake news industry.

We must come together in a bipartisan way and protest this strongly and demand action against such criminal and dangerous activities, which are fast getting social acceptability.

Whatever are the benefits are short lived and whoever they benefit are also not immune to it.

This is a Frankenstein's monster that will engulf us all in its rage and greed.

This fake news/WhatsApp forwards industry -- and especially, the use of it in politics -- is one of the biggest threats to our world and democracies today.

And by allowing it to exist, we are arming evil anti-national forces to use it as a weapon against our political systems, societies and countries.

Most importantly, fake news and WhatsApp forwards are an epidemic that cannot be fought with by just education, awareness and laws. We need all of that, but most importantly, we need political will.

We need unity amongst us all. I understand our reality today is a world divided on political, religious, social lines, but this is an issue on which we must come together.

The alternative is far too dark and far too dangerous for all our nations.

Fake news and WhatsApp forwards, especially employed in politics, makes our world vulnerable, weakens our systems, erodes our faith, our trust in long held institutions.

We can't go back to uncivilised ways. We need politicians, political parties and political systems, but we need them to be built on truth, facts and honesty.

Today, more than any time, we need to be aware and fight this menace with all our might.

This is a bipartisan issue. Irrespective of who started it, who benefits now, who benefits in the future, we will all be victims in the end.

No good can come out of this.

I expect each one of you reading this, irrespective of your political leanings or country to help me create awareness about this epidemic. It affects us all.

Copy paste my words or tweet, share, post your own if you don't wish to use my words, or share my article or my name. No problem, but do create awareness regarding the harm of fake news and fake WhatsApp forwards.

Most importantly, please stop believing in any news, message you read wherever without first verifying it from reliable sources.

It is not that difficult. All it takes is a few seconds. There are many fact check Web sites today. Call a few friends you trust if you are not Internet or research savvy.

And for God's sake, please stop sharing such.

Hold yourself responsible as a citizen. Even if no one knows that you did it, you will.

If tomorrow our nations suffer, you will know you too were part of the problem.

We need to believe in the system that serves us.

Think of your respective nations first, your people first.

Today, this is not only our patriotic duty, but our patriotic priority.

Jai Hind!

Amit Mehra