Just a few days ago, I received a Whatsapp text from one of my relatives stating that Sr Nirmala, the Superior General of the Missionaries of Charity, had passed away. It was accompanied by a picture of her laid out on a bed with the other sisters gathered around her to pay their last respects. There was only one problem! Sr Nirmala had passed away two years ago on 23rd June 2015.
This is one of the many examples of old or distorted news or hoaxes that have begun arriving in our messaging apps in recent times. In the recent months, there have been a number of cases where priests have been announced to have died when they are very much alive and kicking. Not to mention, hoaxes about Pope Francis saying that you don’t have to go for Mass in order to be a good Christian. You need to live like one.
Instant communication and messaging has infinite possibilities and advantages, but like any other human invention, it can be misused as well. There are a number of malicious individuals out there who revel in distributing false news, either because they simply enjoy doing it or because they have a more sinister agenda. But, there’s another class of people, people who are gullible and easily taken in by such news. They unintentionally add to the confusion by sharing these messages with their own contacts and groups.
However, in the recent months there has been a growing awareness among people that they need to be circumspect about the truthfulness of the messages they receive. I receive queries from friends from time to time inquiring if a particular message is true. I’ve been asked by some how to distinguish a false message from an accurate one? While there are no standard rules for this, following the steps below would surely help.
The first rule about sharing/forwarding/retweeting messages is Stop and Think what you are about to do. If the message refers to a public figure or if names have been explicitly mentioned in the message, then we would be doing a great disservice to that person, if we forwarded false messages about them. Just because you received the message from someone you know doesn’t make it true.
ii Official Sources
Does the message include the source from where the message has originated or the name of the original person who composed it? Is it dated? There are messages about job offers that keep doing the rounds long after the positions have been filled up. Look for unusual URLs or site names, including those that end with “.co” — these are often trying to appear like legitimate news sites, but they aren’t. Look for signs of low quality, such as words in all caps, headlines with glaring grammatical errors. These are clues that you should be skeptical of the source.
iii Ask an Authority
For Church and faith related issues you could always check with a priest or nun whom you are in contact with. They are in a much better position to check such news with official sources such as the Diocesan Communications Office. For any other news, check with an authority figure or a person whom you trust.
iv Go Online
There are a number of fact checking websites that help to point out fake news. Hoaxslayer and Snopes are two such sites. Or go to a reputed news website to check out if its published there. I’ve found that simply typing the message in the Google search bar also helps identify fake news at times. The search results will indicate whether a news is true or fake. However, this method may not work for news that is more local such as a dead priest.
v Be more discerning
Would the Pope actually tell people that it is not important to go for Mass? This itself is dead giveaway. Will you strike good fortune if you passed on a message to ten of your contacts? Did the person who didn’t do it really drop dead?
vi Sowing division and hatred
Is the message trying to generate hatred and malice? Chappals with an image of Jesus on them are false news designed to sow hatred and division. Unless you see such a pair with your own eyes, don’t believe it. I received a lengthy document from a friend of mine, allegedly written by a RSS top functionary to RSS workers offering monetary rewards to anyone who killed Christian bishops and priests or raped Christian women. Hopelessly fake stuff maliciously intended to instil anger and hatred and turn one community against another.
vii Information Overload
If the message you receive is useful neither to you nor to the person you intend to forward it to, don’t do it anyways. There’s way too many messages out there clogging our texting apps and our precious little time.
Finally remember Socrates’ Test of Three before passing on a rumour or message: Is it True? Is it Good? Is it Useful?
Read Musings in Catholic Land by Rev. Fr. Joshan Rodrigues