Rewind back to two years during the summer of 2018. Two friends, a 29-year-old sound engineer and musician, and a 30-year-old businessman from Guwahati were on their way to enjoy a picnic by a waterfall in their home-state of Assam. Nilotpal Das, the musician would often listen to sounds of nature to gain inspiration for his own music compositions, and hence frequented the bucolic parts of the neighbourhood. On their way to the desired picnic spot, they stopped by a village to ask for directions.
Unfortunately for them, at that time, the village had been circulating an instructional safety video against child kidnappers on Whatsapp. The video was mistakenly attached with a piece of rumour that wrongly warned the villagers against kidnappers traveling in their local area - thus causing fear and anger amongst them. Unthinkingly the villagers stopped Nilotpal and his friend Abhijeet, thinking them to be the kidnappers described in the text. They collected a mob of people who had all been fed into the lies of that forwarded message, and beat the two friends with rocks, bamboo sticks and matches until they collapsed dead.
The two never made it to the waterfall. Nilotpal, never composed music again, and Abhijeet was forced to terminate all his dreams of growing his business. This is a true story of two friends who were amongst the 20 that were killed that year due to digital spread of fake news on the internet.
With the advent of the cheap availability of smartphones and internet across the nation, has come a spike in its misuse. We buy into everything that is written on the internet, and share it around until it becomes a "truth." We take our cyber security lightly, by making too much of ourselves available on the internet - thus inviting and feeding internet crime that can often be life-threatening.
This story is not to scare you, but to demonstrate the power of a word and a forward. The following are practices we must employ to ensure that we use this power wisely.
Think before you forward.
The following are five questions we must ask ourselves before clicking on the forward button.
Who wrote it?
If you don’t know the author of a message, the photographer of images, creators of videos, there is a high chance it is fake and must not be forwarded. Most people creating genuine content, want credit for their work and include their names in it. Whereas most people who spread lies and are afraid of the consequences and of being caught lying, and so they leave their forwards anonymous.
Can I verify the claims?
There are plenty of fact-checking websites that will allow you to verify the facts/claims made in a message. For instance Boom, supported by Google News Initiative, has a website where they debunk myths, and also a Whatsapp helpline in case you want to personally fact-check a message.
Does the message make me scared or angry?
More often than not, fake messages are created to spread fear or anger. It is important to ask yourself if you are benefitting in any way by forwarding the message, or even benefitting the person you are sending it to.
Does it include shocking pictures, video/audio?
Again, often shocking material is used as a bait to maximize on the number of shares. What is click baity and shocking becomes gossip that people can’t resist spreading. Now that we know better, we must ignore these messages or report them.
Am I sure this is not a hoax?
Unless you are positive that the message you are about to share is true, certified, and comes from a reliable source, do not forward it. If you really wish to forward a message do take the pains to confirm its authenticity before sharing it.
2. Prevent yourself from Passive Scrolling
It is easy to lose track of time when you’re scrolling through your social media channel. We subconsciously feed on endless amounts of information - very little of which is beneficial to us.
Remember, that your attention is expensive, precious and in-demand - so you must use it wisely. Do not pay heed to content that doesn’t leave you a better and more informed individual than when you saw it. Think of information, like your diet, and only feed yourself what is healthy for you.
3. Tidy Your Devices
Just like we clean our desks and drawers, we must clean our inboxes, emails and folders on our digital devices. Unsubscribe from junk emails - and only click on links that are certainly reliable. Update your devices and apps, and delete old, purposeless accounts - they often become a bait to fake accounts generated in your name.
3. Lock Your Digital Space
We don’t leave our coin collections, our money, our clothes cupboards unlocked and public for the whole world to look through, do we? Then why do we do the same when on the internet? It is always a good idea to construct strong, secure passwords that are not merely our names, pet’s names or birthdays. Moreover, instead of using the same password for all your accounts, consider using a password manager to keep all your passwords handy.
Ensure all your devices, accounts and apps require you to authenticate yourself before entering them. Simple photo-sharing apps can also be grossly misused by hackers - and it is imperative that we take all necessary precaution to safeguard our information by reviewing privacy and security settings on each of our accounts.
Last but not the least, consider making your social media accounts private instead of public, and only allow people you know to “follow” you.
4. Think Twice before You Post or Share Your Location
Ask yourself if you really need to post that selfie, or tag yourself in the restaurant you ate lunch at. Remember, all the information you upload can never be destroyed - not even when you delete them. Hackers and stalkers can track information through several layers if they wish to misuse them.
Most applications request to access your location - when they don’t necessarily require them. While some others like Snapchat point out your location to your contacts at all times - if you don’t switch off their geo-tagging feature. Maintaining privacy of your location is vital to your safety. Keeping your geo-tagging and location pointers on at all times is like announcing your address publicly.