When rumors rule a nation

When was the last time, while browsing through your Facebook newsfeed that you came across some shocking news, which you later found out was false news?

This could be about the death of an international celebrity or one asking you to click and contribute to something. The news often comes with photoshopped or out¬of-context pictures.

The answer, in all probability, will be frequently and on occasions you would have even believed it enough to share and comment on it.

A local social media rumor that was soon treated as news was about some impending earthquake in September 2015, supposedly predicted by the Central Monk Body that promptly denied it.

International research on rumors and the social media has found that negative rumors about an individual, event or organization spread the fastest even when it is not true. This has something to do with our human psychology that latches on faster to negative rumors than positive ones.

Human beings are also very curious by nature, and hence, seek out information – be it through news media or even through rumor mills. One good local example was in 2009, around the time of Cyclone Aila, there was a talk of a natural dam bursting upstream of Thimpchhu and a great wall of water flowing as flood along with debris.

People, instead of staying away from the riverbank, rushed to it with cameras and even their families to witness the great flood which turned out to be false. In short, people were even willing to risk their lives to satisfy their curiosity.

This human urge to know and explore the unknown has largely served humanity well, but it has also been exploited and used by individuals and organizations with vested interests.

Historically, interest groups or even individuals with vested interests have not hesitated to use rumors to gain a psychological edge or turn public opinion against individuals and people they did not like.

One example is how the British, as part of its divide and rule policy in India, encouraged elements of Indian society to spread rumors that lead to communal riots between Hindus and Muslims, thereby weakening combined opposition to British rule in India, and the eventual creation of Pakistan. This is an unfortunate habit and trick still used by some political outfits to this day- to consolidate their own vote banks before elections. Social Media itself has been misused by some elements in India to increase communal hatred and even start communal riots by starting false rumors.

In Bhutan, rumors have always existed even before the advent of the social media. However, there is a difference between rumors that start naturally in a society and one that is instigated by powerful interest groups.

One of the many methods employed by such powerful interest groups to spread false information was to circulate a falsely signed ‘confession letter’ of targeted individuals by anonymous people. One of them included a particularly nasty and personalized ‘confession letter’ written in good Dzongkha claiming to be a ‘confession’ from the Editor of this paper. It came with a poorly forged signature. The defamatory letter had been sent to all Gups, Dzongdas and some politicians in 2013 which was denied by the Editor through a formal letter that asked for all of their help to track down the miscreant.

This paper will take this opportunity to clarify that it is not owned by any politician or their family members and the proof is in the records before BICMA and the Registrar of Companies since 2012 nor does it or its employees receive any financial assistance to that effect. In fact the paper is in a financially tight situation with its employees reduced from 39 in 2012 when it started to just 14 as of date.

One particularly vicious forum on Facebook is dominated by a group of motivated and anonymous accounts with an organizational and dedicated purpose of spreading hate and rumors. The few anonymous accounts on the popular forum have used everything from racism to outright lies to attack people it sees as its political opponents or not in agreement with its views.

Ultimately the question to ask is why so many people in Bhutan constantly fall victim to rumors and social media hoaxes – to the extent of even losing millions of their own money.

A reputation is painstakingly built over a lifetime, but in Bhutan these days, it seems it can be destroyed by any anonymous coward in a dark room with an even darker mind.

Bhutanese people need to apply common sense filters and start verifying the information that they consume, be it from the social media or other sources or risk being consumed by it. Also, the sure sign of the intellectual death of a society is one that operates on rumors and not on facts and evidences.

“A lie can run round the world before the truth has got its boots on.”

Terry Pratchett

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