How social media killed Assam Congress leader twice before he actually died

For many, it was just a click or touch of a button in the race to break the 'news' first without verifying it.

 |  4-minute read |   10-08-2017
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On August 2, former Union minister and senior Congress leader from Assam, Santosh Mohan Dev, died after a prolonged illness. It was a sad moment for lakhs of people across the state since he was popular not just among politicians, but the sports fraternity, the cultural community and people across age groups.

He was a trusted lieutenant of the late prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, who entrusted him with crucial ministries. Dev was equally at ease with other Congress PMs such as PV Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh, and played a crucial role as the Congress chief whip during the tenure of former PM HD Deve Gowda.

Although he was not familiar with the social media phenomenon in the real sense, Dev was quite well-known known for his excellent communication skills - it is said he always responded personally to any calls or letters to him.

However, the social media community did a great disservice to him in his last few days as well as a couple of years back.

On two occasions, as he laid in the hospital bed, messages went viral across Whatsapp groups and (to an extent) on Facebook that he was no more. What followed were condolence messages replete with cold and insensitive RIPs even as the man was still alive.

body_081017025357.jpgSantosh Mohan Dev (Image: Twitter/@sushmitadevmp

For many who spread the fake news, it was just a click or touch of a button in the race to break the news first. The hospital authorities, the family members and the countless number of well-wishers were definitely distraught with such news. But more than that they also had to tackle the deluge of people, including the media, coming to confirm the fake news. 

The trigger-happy netizens are completely oblivious to the trauma associated with such fake news. How deeply distressing it could be to the family members.  Fake news, which refers to invented and intentionally/unintentionally distorted news items, have assumed menacing proportions ever since the proliferation of social media in the country. Not very long ago similar fake news of the passing away of veteran actor Dilip Kumar went viral a couple of times as also that of Farida Jalal and Lata Mangeshkar.

As messages through WhatsApp groups spread in almost no time, which in turn get forwarded again and again, the menace is almost unstoppable and out of the capacity of service providers (to block such messages).

Further the source of the fake message often goes undetected because such messages through WhatsApp goes in an encrypted form that cannot be deciphered by the service provider.

Also, many such fake news particularly about people's death are often spread unintentionally and more because of the "urgency to break the news to relevant quarters" without actually verifying it with the family.  Today, WhatsApp has more than 20 crore users in India and most of them are members of various groups, and there is no way to stop fake news from flooding all those groups.

Also, messages via WhatsApp are generally considered intimate and personal in nature compared to those on Facebook or Twitter and almost carries an implicit endorsement by the sender.

Particularly when it's about somebody's death, people tend to believe such forwards more easily due to the trust factor associated with the sender. But the problem is not just limited to fake messages about deaths.

There have been more sinister and serious rumours passed off as news through social media - for instance, the news of Rs 2000 note bearing a GPS chip or fake videos that have fanned communal riots.

While privacy of content in WhatsApp has definitely been addressed by Facebook (the owner of Whatsapp), there has been no concrete measures taken to stop fake news or to penalise the perpetrators.

Needless to say, the time has come to address the attribution factor for such messages and prevent the online media from becoming more untrustworthy.

The trauma that Santosh Mohan Dev's family and friends have suffered will take time to heal, but let this be the trigger point for social media users to verify any news before spreading it. 

Also read: No fatwa to eat wife: How fake news mills are used to fan hatred for Muslims


Subimal Bhattacharjee Subimal Bhattacharjee @subimal

The author is is a globally recognised commentator on cyberspace issues and former country head of General Dynamics.

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