Dr. Haider Shah

Opinion is the medium between knowledge and ignorance (Plato).

OVER A COFFEE: Mythology of social media, The Daily Times, 8 August, 2015

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Unregulated social media has proven to be a mushrooming ground for blatantly wrong and factually incorrect information making rounds on the internet
Dr Haider Shah

The internet has provided impetus to the process of globalisation as smart phone technology has shrunk the world, fitting it into our palm. Every technological breakthrough comes at a price though. If the car engine has made our lives more comfortable by improving transportation it has also polluted our air. The internet is no exception. If it has made all disciplines of knowledge accessible to everyone, it has also made knowledge a drive-through fast food item for the majority of users. Rather than evidence based, well-researched pieces of writing nowadays, memes, nuggets and quotations attract thee attention of readers.

Social media is a product of the internet enabling ordinary users to become opinion makers. While this is a helpful contribution to democratisation of society it has some dysfunctional consequences as well. Today, I want to discuss only one of the unintended consequences: propagation of mythology. Unregulated social media has proven to be a mushrooming ground for blatantly wrong and factually incorrect information making rounds on the internet. Many educated individuals also fall prey to the colourfully presented information that is often accompanied by pictures of famous personalities. Dead people cannot protest so all sorts of quotations are attributed to them.

The myths that are spread on social media can be broadly divided into two classes. One, misquoting without any agenda. For instance, many quotes are wrongly attributed to Shakespeare and other famous authors of the past. “I will die for your right to say” quote is often attributed to Voltaire but, in reality, he never said that; rather his biographer said so. These types of misquotes and inaccuracies do not cause any serious concern for me. What alarms me is rather the second category where a piece of information is manufactured with mischief and an agenda driven intent. Our faith-inspired friends are often the main transmitters of this kind of mythology on the internet. However, many liberal and critical thinkers can also fall victim to the hoaxes that appear abundantly on social media. One good example is the frequently posted excerpt by Lord Macaulay from his speech delivered to British parliament on February 2, 1835. The excerpt makes the reader believe that English was imposed by the British government in order to break the very backbone of the Indian nation by replacing India’s ancient educational system with English and thus making them a truly dominated nation. The truth is that Macaulay was not in England in 1835 and his views are recorded in the well-known minute on education. Para eight of the minute makes Macaulay’s views very clear: “All parties seem to be agreed on one point, that the dialects commonly spoken among the natives of this part of India contain neither literary nor scientific information, and are moreover so poor and rude that, until they are enriched from some other quarter, it will not be easy to translate any valuable work into them. It seems to be admitted on all sides, that the intellectual improvement of those classes of the people who have the means of pursuing higher studies can at present be affected only by means of some language not vernacular amongst them.”

At that time one a lakh rupee government grant was given for the promotion of Sanskrit and Arabic. Macaulay, in his minute, argued for using the grant on education in English as then there was a division of opinion on this issue.

Mythology is not limited to the events and quotations of the distant past. Even recent events can also be tainted with a lot of fiction. For instance, one picture regularly appears on social media where a judge of the Islamabad High Court (IHC) is shown to be kissing Mumtaz Qadri, the murderer of Salmaan Taseer. The picture usually draws scathing remarks from our liberal friends who, like the faithful, ride on their preconceived notions. In reality, the person in the picture is not the judge but an advocate who looks a bit similar. Despite many clarifications the picture however still makes its rounds.

More recently, another story based on incorrect facts dominated social media. A customs inspector was eulogised as a martyr as he was allegedly killed for being an investigator in the Ayaan Ali money smuggling case. I must confess that I also felt shocked when the story made its maiden appearance. As the sceptic in me does not take any assertion on face value I then carried out a little search on the internet and soon it became clear to me that the inspector had no connection with the case and the story was the figment of someone’s juicy imagination. Basic common sense would have also resulted in questioning the veracity of the story. Why did the court not ask about the murder of an investigating officer in the case when bail was sought? I was surprised to see many educated social media users fervently believing in the story and making sensational comments.

Merely the picture of a celebrity against a quotation or in a meme does not give authenticity to any quote. We can save ourselves the embarrassment of becoming the foolish victim of social media mythology if we develop the habit of not embracing every quotation unless a full verifiable reference is given. Not only a stich in time but a little doubt also saves nine.

Author: Dr. Haider Shah

Academic, Researcher and Writer

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