My mother is a very credible person. If you know her you would know this. She is a big champion of honesty, believes in verifying information, and is a tad skeptical of most things, to be honest. I can vouch for the last bit – she would sniff out my teenage lies before I had told them! You can trust what she tells you, unless, she received the information on WhatsApp. Almost all of our conversations now include a quick health check on my side – have you learned this from a WhatsApp forward? The role has reversed. Now I am the skeptic, looking out for that forwarded untruth. But I wonder how a perfectly sane, rational human being, like my mother, gets duped consistently by the drivel on WhatsApp? How did WhatsApp (India) lure the country into the net of the fake news Mafia?
If many Indians, of certain age and background, are technophobes, they have very good reasons to be so. New technology trickled in very slowly to everyday lives. In India, the common people were introduced to technology much later than the rest of the world. Televisions and telephones were rare in households all the way up to the mid-’80s. The computers made a slow entry by late-’90s. While at the back-end, technology was making massive jumps the entire time, consumer technology hardly changed until the handheld phones exploded in the new millennium. By then, most Indians had been wired to a moderate increment in technology, a pace that they found both comforting and valuable. Even when the boom happened, it left behind a majority of Indians in rural and less privileged segments of the society.
The urban Indian Millennials, on the other hand, saw a skyrocketing pace of consumer technology change in their early lives. Personal tech became obsolete almost once a year, and they evolved to keep pace. Quickly, the intent of their technology use changed. They were not accessing tech to make their lives convenient, as the Boomers were. Convenience was now a given. They were seeking recognition, connection, attention, and channels of self-expression. Naturally, social media exploded in their ready hands.
The urban seniors, who were too busy paying mortgages to explore new tech at the same rate, found themselves frowning skeptically at machines that had consumed their children’s lives.
Their kids were suddenly living inside their computers, far far away from their lonely parents – even while they co-habited. Begrudgingly some of them started exploring the vast universe of the internet. They got lost and lost patience. It was not until recently that the Boomers in India adopted (in a ‘funny’ fashion) to Facebook!
Why WhatsApp was a Relief
Here is the thing. Most Indians, the elderly and the tech unsavvy, had just about gotten comfortable with the small and annoying buttons on a handheld when SMS went out of fashion. Suddenly, everyone was on Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat! I think they were most confounded by the lack of privacy there. As a generation, they were not comfortable with the constant display of private life. Their attempts to engage often had hilarious results.
Then WhatsApp solved the problem. It gave them a chance to connect with only those they preferred to have a communication with.
It brought them online, and closer to their children. It also made them feel more tech-savvy. And guess what, it was free and more cost-effective than SMS. They fell in love.
The idea of group chats caught on, especially in a community-centric culture like ours. There were now family groups, friend groups, apartment groups, club groups, hobby groups et al, and those that had been left behind for a while, felt ready to share ideas. The media also became the fastest network to get news. WhatsApp became trusted source of information.
And then came the infestation
Earlier this year, WhatsApp crashed due to the millions of Good Morning gifs shared by Indians. The older Indians are emotionally invested in WhatsApp and have a kind of reverence for the medium. They dutifully *LOL* at all forwarded jokes and reply to all animated wishes, no matter how many a day bombards their systems.
It was only a matter of time before the systems like politics and organized religion started taking advantage of their blind faith. Wedged between boatloads of benign wishing and malignant sexism, are nuggets of acute misinformation. Absurd explanations of why the Government is great or horrendous, conspiracy theories against everything from medicines to shoes, pointless rumors, and thoughtless partisanism – everything goes.
A large section of our citizen are so completely hypnotized by the credibility of the information exchange, that they almost always believe. This is an extension of their old school belief in printed media as an impartial machinery.
They also pass on the information in hopes of enlightening others, playing easily into the hands of the manipulative forces behind the content.
Things are on the mend though. Millennial Urban Indian children are annoyed by their parents’ participation in the proliferation of misinformation and fake news. A young lady called out her relatives on their blatant sexism last year. Many others are having private conversations with their people about being responsible and mindful before sharing trash on social media.
Fake news, sectarianism, and polarization via social media have been the most difficult issues this decade. It is high time that we stop and deliberate before we share. If there is an iota of doubt about a content, keep it to yourself. Better still, delete it! Let’s educate others on how to do WhatsApp right!
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