Mumbai: Last week, Uddhav Thackeray was forced to deny reports that Mumbai would be re-imposing a lockdown on June 15. The reports had made such an impact that all over the city, people were stocking up on goods and wondering whether they had made a mistake by resuming work too soon.
In Delhi, where reports of a similar June 15 lockdown had also surfaced — though they had not been as widely circulated as they were in Mumbai — the health minister, and subsequently the chief minister, had to issue a similar denial.
Here’s the thing about these reports. They had not come from a single credible source. Nor had they been attributed to anyone in a position to either make that decision or to know the truth. They had not been carried in newspapers or on TV channels.
And on Facebook and WhatsApp, you don’t need to quote anyone or provide any sources. People just tend to believe what they read on their phones. And even if they don’t fully believe, it still nags away at them inside their heads.
The WhatsApp news phenomenon is not new. WhatsApp has regularly been used by political parties and partisan groups to circulate photo-shopped pictures and false news. Riots have broken out as a consequence of WhatsApp forwards and people have been killed on the basis of fake news.
But over the last few months, there has been an important escalation in the ability of social media — not just WhatsApp but Facebook too — to set the agenda. In the United States (US), Facebook posts have been used to stoke emotions and circulate bogus information in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
Fortunately, this has led to a national outcry against Facebook in the US and a systematic debunking of the lies by TV channels and newspapers. In India, alas, we don’t have the checks and balances that they have in the US.