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Spreading panic with rumours is worse than black money


Spreading panic with rumours is worse than black money

Saurabh Vaktania

The salt shortage episode proves rumour-mongering is on an all time high in – and threatening to turn into an epidemic.

This morning, our neighbour rushed to our house in a fit of panic, asking us to buy salt immediately as she believed there is an acute shortage of salt and that prices would go up to Rs 300 to 500 per kg. We had better sense than to believe the rumour. Only few days ago, soon after the demonetisation drive was launched, I got this WhatsApp forward: “Important message, whoever has marriage in their house, can take the marriage card, to local area DCP and with his stamp can remove five lakhs for the marriage, please share for help.” Needless to say, this was a hoax. Rumour mongering is on an all time high in India – and threatening to turn into an epidemic.

Social media is a boon and helpful with its great impact, but it comes with drawbacks. Key ministers and officials have to react to the spurious chain of messages being peddled on social media and WhatsApp immediately. Imagine the reach of one such message sent on a single WhatsApp group with over 100 members – or the reach of a tweet shared numerous times. These rumours also come with appeals such as “please share for your loved ones”, so people tend to pass them on to others without verification.

Such messages spread like a wild forest fire; by the time you can think of working out a plan to extinguish the fire, it leads to unimaginable destruction. For instance, by the time the police and government officials reacted to the salt shortage rumour, tonnes of salt were sold, and in remote areas, many even stormed into ration shops and looted them. There was a scuffle at a mall in Delhi's Seelampur over the shortage rumour and the police even made a public statement that the message is fake.

“The total production of salt in India on an average is about 220 lakh tonnes. Of this, only around 60 lakh tonnes is used for domestic consumption. The remaining quantity is for industrial use and exports. Thus there is sufficient manoeuvrability to meet any unexpected localised shortage, if any.”

There is no stopping such rumours. A few days ago, word spread that Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalitha is dead and there were incidents of violence in the state, some committed suicide while few suffered a heart attack.

In Mumbai, riot-like situations have been prevented in the past by cracking down on the root of such messages. This year, during the last day of the Ganpati festival celebrations, a WhatsApp message claiming someone had broken a Ganesha idol and a skirmish broke out soon after in the Malad area of the city, went viral. Despite it being a rumour, the message led to a riot-like situation. From constables to top IPS officers in Mumbai, everyone made a bid to control the situation and averted a tragedy by seeking the help of a network service provider.

The Mumbai police Twitter account has also fallen prey to such rumours in the past when cops reached a supposed scene over a tweet that a girl was kidnapped in the city's Bandra suburb only to find out that the suspect was the father of the girl – and the tweet a false alarm.

So are these rumours spreading because of the widespread use of Whatsapp and social media? No. Who can forget that rumour from '90s India that claimed idols of Hindu gods started drinking milk! It initially started from North India and spread to almost all other parts of the country. People were seen buying litres of milk and gathering at temples in droves. Even gods in foreign countries started drinking milk soon after. There were stories from United Kingdom, Canada, the UAE, Nepal and other nations that our gods were indeed drinking milk.

The incident was widely covered by the press and Indian media broadcast it day and night. Later on, a scientific explanation emerged and the cause was attributed to capillary action.

Can we ban such rumours or restrict them? Not at all. One cannot stop the entire medium of communication, it is us – the people – who must stop spreading such messages, as well as panic.

If we refrain from forwarding such messages, tragedy can be averted. Cyber experts say restricting such messages is no easy feat. The police can arrest the person who forwards such messages, but nabbing the culprit who generates them is difficult. The only way then, to stop rumour mongering, is stop sharing the messages from our end.

The Northlines is an independent source on the Web for news, facts and figures relating to Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh and its neighbourhood.

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