It happens to almost all of us everyday. We are sitting there minding our own business and interrupts a loud “tring tring” or at other times even a “bzzt bzzt”. It’s not a pesky fly or insect, no it is something much worse. It is a cell phone, and we have just received an SMS.
We now are living in an ever more connected world. The rate at which information flows is tremendous. Even in developing countries like Pakistan where there are still few broadband internet connections, about 1.4 million as of last August, a large majority of us are connected via cell phones, about 120 million total in the whole country! With this increased connectivity have come an increased set of problems, some being harmless and annoying as jokes about a certain someone “who must not be named” to real issues which have come to destroy many lives such as entrapment of young women and teenagers. One pertinent problem however that escapes the general discourse is the flowing of misinformation and the believability that it generally ends up enjoying.
Every time there is a major event or date coming up viral SMS starts shooting out. Some portray false facts, some promote conspiracy theories, some level abuses against another group and some are religious in nature promoting specific “duas” while others promote sectarian or racial violence. I received a message from my friend the other day and it read: “The Holy Prophet (SAW) said: ‘Looking at the sun and reciting Subhan Allah 20 times makes one’s day a blessed one.’ Science has now proven that looking at the sun is beneficial not only for your eyes but also for your body. Subhan Allah the Prophet (SAW) had told 1400 years ago what science just tells us now.” Now I am neither a religious scholar nor am I an ophthalmologist (eye specialist) but I do know that looking into the sun directly can cause permanent damage to the retina, which essentially is the seeing part of the eye. The retina has no pain receptors so we don’t feel anything. This is one example, and I wonder how many people a day would have been doing the same? How many would have made it a daily ritual?
Another example of such misinformation is a message, which said that one fast food company was funding the war against Palestinians in the Middle East while the other was not. Another said that one political party had made a deal to sell off the country. One message informed of the dangers that “Jews” or “Christians” posed to the society and how one could identify them in public because of their actions. Another was about Sunnis and Shias. Now as Rabiul Awal approaches another misinformation campaign will start, on whether it is right or wrong to celebrate it. Another recent trend in SMS messages that has emerged is promoting hatred amongst students going to different schools. It is also worth noting that extremist groups also use these mediums to brainwash and recruit people. Now this becomes seriously problematic. For one a large number of young people use cellphones, and at such an impressionable age they could form radical opinions, which to some extent they are coupled with an increasing emphasis on belief in conspiracy theories. The latter becoming more true for most.
This has led to a situation where there is no forgiveness in our society for holding genuine opinions and beliefs, for example if someone advocates a cause it has to be driven by some conspiracy or agency not by one’s own intellectual conclusions. Seldom do we allow people to be judged on the merit and content of their arguments. We emphasize judgement on fabricated possible motives. Essentially anyone who thinks differently than ourselves is either a traitor, agent, illiterate or a fool. This flow of misinformation has increased this intolerance by driving these conspiracy and agent paradigms further from individuals to organizations. As a result of this, we choose to fight within ourselves based on arbitrary differences, we create foundations for conflict, hatred and disunity. Information coupled with unconditional and uncritical acceptance easily becomes the basis of these effects. We live in a world where we are.
I can’t advocate censorship because that is not the way to combat such misinformation and the power to judge what is true or not can be a strong motivator for corruption and abuse. The PTA trying to ban certain SMS words backfired strongly. What is needed is an awareness campaign and an education on matters of looking at information more critically, and not relaying information without confirming its authenticity first. Parents should also advise their children of the same.
Now as the government of Pakistan is finally going to auction off 3G licenses in March, sadly at a time when the world is moving to 4G, we will see more and more people connected to this information highway and possibly these problems being exasperated. This phenomenon will spill into the internet as well, not that it isn’t already present there but an increase in inevitable. Our best defence is to educate ourselves and others, that we shouldn’t believe blindly what we read and are told. We should educate ourselves to think critically and listen to other’s before forming our opinions. Alas, a lot easier said than done.
We live in a misinformation age, and the misinformation doesn’t seem to go away any soon. I have a strong feeling that this article too will fall prey to the same.