WhatsApp: Boon or bane?
Texts, Internet, social networks are “gift of God” if used wisely – Pope Francis
“Emails, text messages, social networks and chats can also be fully human forms of communication. Social networks can facilitate relationships and promote the good of society, but they can also lead to further polarization and division between individuals and groups.” said the Pope Francis in his message on the World Day of Communications in 2016.
How true and relevant are the words spoken by the Pope!
“Social media is the ultimate equaliser. It gives a voice and a platform to anyone willing to engage.” — Amy Jo Martin, Founder and CEO of Digital Royalty.
Our lives are wired towards technology and So much of our life is spent in front of a screen. All of us are glued to our screen 24/7 either on various social networking sites such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Snapchat, You tube, Netflix, Amazon prime video, Max Player or any popular gaming App. The lives of the individuals are intertwined in the usage of these Apps. One only has to know how much dependant one has become if one were to lose her/his phone for a day. There’s always FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) and one gets accustomed to the constant notifications on the phone. While the whole world has gotten accustomed to its everyday use, religious are not an exception at all. It has made inroads in to various aspects of our lives altering the way we think, feel and act.
The focus here is on the use of the popular messaging App called WhatsApp. One can find its usage in great numbers. Almost everyone is using it. You probably can’t remember the last day you went without using WhatsApp though there are exceptions. Chances are that you have it on your phone and use it on a daily basis – and you’ve probably checked it at least once in the past two hours. With billions of people unable to see their friends and family in person due to the current pandemic COVID-19, people are relying on WhatsApp more than ever to communicate.
There are currently more than 2 billion WhatsApp users around the globe and rising. WhatsApp is currently available in over 180 countries around the world (WhatsApp, 2020). To cater to the local crowd, the app is also available in 60 different languages. WhatsApp has amassed more than 400 million users in India. (Singh, 2019)
More than 65 billion messages are currently being sent daily via WhatsApp (Connectiva Systems, 2019, as cited in Lin, 2020). In other words, that boils down to 2.7 billion per hour, 45 million per minute, and more than 750,000 per second.
Such is the dominance of WhatsApp in our daily lives. It taps into our innate psychological need for social belonging. Having near-constant access to our friends and family via WhatsApp can be a double-edged sword. The messaging app is another social media platform that has become a source of unverified information despite its positive advantages.
The global pandemic covid-19 has changed our lives upside down. While it has brought lots of positive benefits in the lockdown for its constructive use, it has also brought lots of anxiety, fear, tension, uncertainty lurking with no solace. The conversations these days revolve around this topic at our dining table and in all the spheres. There is an overload of information regarding the covid-19 on various social media platforms. With the current crisis, we can see an overflowing of information regarding covid-19 and all seem to be drowning in this information intentionally or unintentionally.
The question here is how responsibly do we use this Application in our lives? This article will focus on two important aspects i.e. fake forwards and the chain messages.
Is all forwarding bad? Certainly not. Many people forward helpful information, as well as funny videos, memes, and reflections or prayers they find meaningful. It has been used constructively to bring people together academically or personally. The forwards do enhance our life quality and help us in our overall growth. A lot depends how one utilises this wonderful tool of communication. However, one also sees a significant increase in the amount of forwarding which at times can be overwhelming and can contribute to the spread of misinformation.
These days everyone is churning out the “expert opinion” on any subjects possible from the “WhatsApp University”. But when it comes to forwarding, what is our attitude towards it? Do we feel the urge to forward it immediately? Then we are probably in the league of compulsive forwarders. Do we ever read what we share or post? When was the last time we paused and thought before forwarding that “expert advice” to our friends? Do we ever verify them before forwarding? Have we ever contributed to the spread of misinformation?
Let us ask ourselves, “are we one of those super active people on WhatsApp groups–the compulsive text ‘forwarders’ who shrug off all responsibility from what they share?”
India is currently highly polarized and divided on various opinions be it political, ideological, economical or religious. The slightest provocation leads to adverse effects.
How can we forget the last year’s mob lynching due to child lifting rumour spread on WhatsApp? Once the message is forwarded it spreads like wild fire unable to stop its spread despite the forwarding limit to constrain its virality.
Superspreader of fake news
These types of people seem to be aiming at forwarding the messages at the lightning speed. They think they need to be the ‘first ‘in sending the vital information to his/her contacts. The whole urgency of sending it without verifying makes it a perfect recipe for disaster.
Here it’s important to pay attention to the fake news. What is fake news? “Fake news” is a term used to refer to fabricated news. Fake news, also known as junk news, pseudo-news, alternative facts or hoax news, is a form of news consisting of deliberate disinformation or hoaxes spread via traditional news media (print and broadcast) or online social media. The news is then often reverberated as misinformation in social media but occasionally finds its way to the mainstream media as well.
Just as true information has many faces, fake news can also come in many forms. Here are a few of them.
Political fake news
This is the main reason there has been so much talk about fake news in the past few years. For example, the ETF News site published in 2016 the following fake news item: “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President”. This article received over 960,000 Likes, comments or shares. But After being fact-checked, it quickly became apparent that these stories were almost entirely fabricated. The story was originally published by a site called WTOE 5 News before being copied by a popular fake news publisher Ending the Fed. WTO5 News has since shut down its website. However, when it was operational, it openly admitted to fabricating content and even had a disclaimer on its homepage saying: “most articles on wt0e5news.com are satire or pure fantasy.”
Pope Francis also spoke out against the dangers of fake news on December 7 2016 in an interview with the Belgian Catholic Weekly, calling it a “sickness.”
Spectacular fake news
Sometimes fake news is shared because it is sensational.
Fake news that tries to sell something
It would seem that eating bananas for 12 days is a good detox cure to lose weight! It would also prevent headaches, help you sleep better, etc. In short, it’s a real miracle.
News of this kind floods the Internet. One must remember that obviously, just because this was shared by a friend doesn’t make it true, and just because it’s promoted by our favourite celebrity doesn’t make it any truer!
Fake news that creates fear
There are some threatening messages which create fear and anxiety among the people. With the current global pandemic, the world is experiencing fear like never before. Fear factor combined with fake news creates new ‘infodemic’ on social media. As India battles the deadly coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, a fake news ‘infodemic’ is also spreading on WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms with numerous false claims.
While official agencies and several private fact-checkers keep on promptly debunking the fake news, the full-hoaxes and half-truths continues unabated, including by some fraudsters trying to mint some easy money by circulating fake bank account details for contributions to the government relief funds. There are also a number of other such misinformation being circulated about the COVID-19 treatment and ways to avoid getting infected from the deadly coronavirus.
Fake news that sustains sexist ideas
For some it is very easy to launch rumours or information tailor-made to sustain erroneous ideas about women. Several memes which are sexist in nature are published on the Web daily. People forward sexist jokes mindlessly without sparing a thought. People laugh it off without understanding its grave repercussions.
Fake news that promote discriminatory ideas
One can see the forwards deriding people based on the colour of their skin, caste, class, gender, religion etc. It reveals the narrow and discriminatory mindset of the person who forwards such messages. We need to celebrate the diversity and differences in the society, treating each human being with respect and dignity.
Manipulated videos featuring prominent people
Fake videos have existed for a long time. Deepfake is a new technology that uses artificial intelligence to fake videos. With an application that can be downloaded, images are used to “teach” artificial intelligence to imitate a face. When this is done, the software can insert the face in any video. This may seem funny, but it’s worrying as it’s a breach of privacy.
“The God fearing” Chain message forwarders
I have come across many such messages asking people to continue the chain or else something bad might happen. The question here is what’s the need for God to resort to such cheap publicity?
Sadly, many religious too forward such chain messages mindlessly without sparing a thought.
How often have we forwarded the messages without fact checking? The most annoying and the most popular forward seem to be the chain messages asking people to send to 10 more people or face some dire consequences. e.g. the message reads, “Jesus appeared to so and so…if you don’t forward to another 10 people something bad will happen. I mean, seriously? Does God need all this first of all? How can one be so naïve and send such forwards mindlessly?
The foundation for most chain letters is superstition. God does not make His grace and mercy contingent upon us forwarding a message to several friends. Perhaps the prayer that is included is quite beautiful and worth praying. But, nonetheless, the effect of that prayer is not dependent upon us following the instructions of a message.
Social media is swamped with memes and little stories designed to elicit emotion, most ending with a challenge to “re-post if you love Jesus” or some such instruction. Some go further by promising “ten blessings in the next ten days” or “God will reward you” for sharing the post. Others are not so gracious and imply a lack of spiritual devotion in anyone who fails to forward it, type “Amen” in the comment box, or validate it in some other way. Unfortunately, thousands of otherwise solid, sincere people fall for these silly threats on a daily basis, which causes one to wonder why. Do some truly believe God is typing these things and crossing His fingers in hopes we will all forward them?
Do people believe they are “standing up for Jesus” by sitting behind a computer screen or a mobile screen and hitting “post”?
One danger in this type of religious chain message is that it greatly trivializes the power and majesty of the Lord and makes us appear weak-minded and superstitious. Many of the Christian-sounding sentiments expressed through these chain messages are not even scripturally accurate and are nothing more than wishful thinking or prosperity teaching.
Jesus warned His disciples to be as “wise as serpents and as gentle as doves” (Matthew 10:16). A proper response to any claim that seems too good to be true is to do some checking before participating. Fact-checking does not imply a hard heart or a lack of faith.
There are few types of chain messages:
· Religion simplified type
This type of chain letter offers a very simple view of Christianity. Usual themes are “God loves you, please choose to be a Christian, then prove you’re a Christian” etc. Sounds good, right? Except that when one severely over-simplifies Christianity to be based on one’s short term behavioural response, one often loses vital parts that are absolutely necessary, such as Jesus dying on the cross for sins, salvation by faith etc.
EXAMPLE: “Jesus loves you! He wants to give you joy and prosperity! Accept him into your life right now by sending this message to 10 other people within the next ten minutes! If you don’t…something bad will happen to you before the day is done!”
· Test of your faith type
This is the really hard-hitting kind; you know the ones that make you gulp back the guilt. These most often set up a scenario where our love of God and genuineness as a Christian directly correlated with our ability to message people.
EXAMPLES: “If you love God, send this forward to 10 people and be sure to send it back to me, if I don’t hear from you I will know how you really feel about God” and “God is going to fix things for you tonight and let things work in your favour. If you believe in Him forward to ten people. DON’T IGNORE. GOD COULD BE TESTING YOU. If you deny him now, HE will deny you in heaven”
· Prosperity type
The whole idea is that if you do a certain thing (forward, forward, forward!!!!!!!) then God will react with blessing, love, salvation, etc. This obviously misses the whole point.
EXAMPLE: “PRAY THIS: God our Father, walk through my house and take away all my worries and illness; and please watch over and heal my family in Jesus’ name… Amen” This prayer is so powerful. Pass to 12 people. A blessing is coming to you in 4 mins A new job, house, marriage or financially. Do not break or ask questions. This is a test. Does God come first in your life?? If so, stop what you are doing and send to 12 people”
If we ask ourselves a few simple questions first, we can make wiser decisions before forwarding fake news or chain messages:
- Is it true? The question is not “Do I wish it was true?” If we cannot personally vouch for the accuracy of something we are about to send or re-post, then don’t re-post. We don’t want to be part of spreading a lie.
- Is it coercion? Coercion is a form of lying, and God hates any form of it (Proverbs 12:22; 13:5; Revelation 21:8). When we coerce people to do something, we are manipulating their decisions through force or threats.
- Is it superstition? Many times, the power behind chain letters is a superstitious fear that, if the chain is broken or the recipient does not obey its demands, something bad will happen. This superstition also promises supernatural blessing for obeying its instructions, as though God were selling cheap lottery tickets by mail or social media. They also propagate a false view of God and His real blessings.
- Is it a substitute for true spiritual devotion? In this day of digital connection, it has become easy to hide behind our devices, quote some Bible verses or cheery sayings into the public arena, and feel satisfied that we have “witnessed for Christ.” But what are our posts accomplishing? How many people have been led to repentance and salvation by a chain letter claiming to offer God’s blessings for passing it on?
Discerning human beings will think twice before hitting “post,” “share,” or “send” on chain messages.
Social media has become more and more integrated into many aspects of our daily lives. Given the fluidity of social media, it’s very important to post with a discerning mind. Before posting anything online, let’s go through the THINK acronym and ensure that what you want to post will benefit you and those who see it. T stands for true – Is this post/picture/comment truthful or is it possibly based on a rumour? H is for helpful – Will this help someone or will it potentially bring harm or hurt to someone? I is information – Is this actual information based on fact or is it gossip or unnecessary chatter? N is for needed – Is this something that people need to hear, or it is irrelevant? K stands for kind – Is what you want to post is kind and nice, or is it harsh or rude?
WhatsApp being a boon or bane will ultimately depend on its users. So, let’s resolve to be wise, discerning and responsible digital citizens while using the social media.
Sr. Anjana Parmar OP,
Shantiniwas Community, Pune, Maharashtra, India.