Everyone's got an opinion...

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Everyone's got an opinion...

A s soon as the new Rs 2,000 notes were introduced into the economy last year, a message about every note carrying a GPS chip started doing the rounds. To people reeling under the effects of the demonetisation, this was big news!

Some hailed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ingenuity, others cried hoarse over the ‘systematic spying’, while few questioned the feasibility of the idea and by extension, the truth in the news.

In spite of several clarifications provided by the Reserve Bank of India, denying the presence of any such chip, the news went viral on social media to the extent that someone suggested that the chip would pop out if the note was refrigerated.

“I tried it,” says Shantanu, a college student from Mumbai. “I mean, it seemed too real to disbelieve. I kind of feel foolish about it now but well, I did put one note in the freezer, without my parents’ knowledge,” he says, sheepishly. Just for the record, nothing except his parents’ eyes popped out upon seeing the much-coveted note frozen.

Are you a serial forwarder?

Last week, Preeti K, a Mumbai-based medical professional, received an ‘important’ WhatsApp message from Mumbai’s traffic police commissioner about new rules that need to be followed by cops in case drivers are found erring. She promptly forwarded it to all her contacts. Preeti is a serial forwarder.

The week before that, it was a message about a dangerous virus lurking on leading websites, while more recently, it was one about the Jallikattu ban. She faithfully passed them on to hundreds of people without batting an eyelid. The weeks after the demonetisation were the worst, as I received an average of five messages from her every day, all of them making claims that were apparently verified by a undisclosed ‘reliable source’.

This week, wording my thoughts carefully, I asked Preeti if she really believes the messages that she sends out. “Of course,” she said. And how does she verify the authenticity of these messages she so diligently sends out? “I don’t verify them but I know they are genuine. I believe them because, why would anyone forward so many messages on the same topic if they weren’t true?” she retorted, emphasising that she believes and forwards only those messages that she receives ‘many’ times. “How can so many people be wrong at the same time? Also, there is no harm in alerting people about problems,” she says, defensively.

Move on from Facebook already

For Jasjeet, a Delhi-based entrepreneur, Facebook is her daily newspaper. “It’s so up-to-date! I get to know about most things when my friends share articles about them,” says the 32-year-old who is addicted to the platform. Ask him how he checks if the information is correct or not and he plainly says he doesn’t. “If my friends on Facebook are saying it, it must be true. They obviously do a check before putting it up on their walls,” he says, probably not realising how ridiculous it sounds.

Social media is truly a boon as well as a bane in today’s world. With zero verification and lower than imaginable authenticity of sources, articles with enticing headlines become online booby traps. Verifying news has moved from being a reporter’s job to the reader’s now, but clearly no one seems interested. It’s too daunting and time-consuming. Worse still, people are not aware that they may be reading fake or fabricated news! Result? Multiple retweets and shares of the untruth.

Don’t be gullible

Social media rumours spread like wildfire. There is no stopping them. They aren’t just standalone elements. Opinions are formed on the basis of news and the false kind can be dangerous. In the recent times, political parties seem to be using them with great effect to promote their views and impose their propaganda on the easily-influenced social media users. Those who conform are glorified, but hell hath no fury like an internet troll disproved.

Pragya Barthwal Dhyani, MD and creative director, Thoughtshop Advertising and Film Production, says swimming against the tide is a very challenging task indeed. For when you stand alone in the virtual world, you truly stand alone. Pragya confesses to having lost old friendships and exposing herself to personal attack and abuse online, thanks to her opinions.

“Most of my friends are from mainstream media and they have strong opinions on every subject. So whatever I put up on my Facebook timeline invites different responses – some of them caustic. I always request the participants to keep the debate rational and polite but it never happens.”

This bold and progressive thinker has to keep her social views under wraps mainly due to the presence of her family members on the same platform. However, she says, independent thinking is important in an age where online propaganda is assuming alarming proportions.

“One needs to follow different news sources, not just mainstream or social media. If you follow people who think the same way as you do, you will end with either the same views or with extremist ideas. To balance it out and to understand every aspect of an issue, without swaying one way or the other, you must read more, observe more and keep public debates polite and civil,” Pragya says.

Stay on topic

Sagar Sharma, a Mumbai-based blogger who writes about political and social issues, feels that the levels of impatience and disrespect for opposing opinions and thoughts seem to be increasing with time. And that’s what is dwarfing independent thinkers. “Social media is supposed to be a platform where people exchange ideas for the betterment of the whole. Unfortunately, these exchanges have reduced to personal attacks.”

Social media shaming is not just disrespectful but also dangerous, he opines. “One thing that has emerged due to the growing influence of social media is an army of trolls who seem to be on the payroll of individuals or political parties. These trolls don’t hesitate to stoop to their lowest levels to further the cause they’re associated with,” he rants.

For Sagar, reading books and supporting policies and not personalities from a political point of view has helped shape an opinion of his own. “We need to improve our listening skills. Debating is important as is respecting another’s opinion and not getting personal. We mustn’t get carried away by the divide-and-rule tactics practised by a privileged few to create disquiet among people,” he says.

Jatin U, an entrepreneur who gets bombarded with messages about the latest tax laws and other business data on a daily basis, says he has learnt to take everything with a pinch of salt. “I refrain from commenting on subjects that I know I’m not very sure about. But when I do have an opinion, I defend it with all I have. And when I am getting information off the social media, I immediately see whom it’s coming from,” he says.

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