Dear WhatsApp University celebrities, please log out of your social media accounts now

It might help us contain the coronavirus pandemic.

ByMeghnad S
Dear WhatsApp University celebrities, please log out of your social media accounts now
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Amitabh Bachchan tweeted this.

He even shared a random picture of himself with it. This image seemed to depict the emotion his followers would experience after they read his tweet:

Yeah. No idea why there are question marks all over this or why the filename is in the image, but it is fine. Old person using twitter, such things are expected, and even to be indulged.

But what should not be indulged is the text of the tweet. Bachchan has over 40 million followers on Twitter who this went out to, apart from the general junta on the platform.

Bacteria, shankh, vibration killing viruses. It may be harmless to read all this on Whatsapp when forwards appear on family groups, but there are people like Bachchan and Madhu Kishwar who end up sharing these forwards on other social media platforms. Through Twitter, such posts are amplified to reach a lot of people real quick. What’s more, it gives that piece of information some legitimacy among people who trust the popular figure sharing it.

This piece of misinformation is being shared so much that even the Press Information Bureau has had to do a factcheck.

This was put up on March 22 and Big B casually tweeted the same piece of fake news on 23rd. Bachchan deleted his tweet a few hours later, after facing a lot of backlash, but the damage was done. It was up for the world to see and now screenshots will be circulated widely to legitimize bullshit theories about viruses being eradicated by…sound. Mohanlal, another superstar, also spread this.

Joining the bandwagon was Rajinikanth. He said in a video posted on Twitter: “India is currently in Stage 2. If people don't contract the virus which lives outside in public places frequented by people for 12-14 hours, we can stop it from going to stage 3.”

After a lot of backlash from people asking how a day of isolation would prevent us from going to Stage 3 on the pandemic scale, the tweet was taken down.

Allow me to present another case of bullshittery amplification.

No idea where Sonu Nigam got this information from, but according to him the “janta curfew” on Sunday was a masterstroke by Modiji because coronavirus disappears in 12 hours, and the curfew was for 14 hours. Essentially, in Sonu’s head, the virus suddenly disappears across the country if we just stay indoors for a day.

Alt News did a factcheck and found this claim, no surprises, patently false.

Realise the enormity of the fake news being spread here. Fans and followers of Sonu Nigam, who trust him because he has a magical voice, might believe this to be true and assume, “Hey! Sonu Nigam said the virus has expired like an exposed banana on a humid Mumbai afternoon. Must be true. Thank you, Modiji! Now let’s party! Let’s do a parade! Or…let’s celebrate the taking over of a state government!”

At a time when it is literally life-threatening for people to go out and be part of large groups, misinformation like this can be devastating. Modi called for the janta curfew and wanted people to bang utensils and clap at 5 pm not because it would rid us of the virus but because it would be a gesture of thanks to the essential services personnel battling this disease.

But one unseen effect of this, combined with misinformation of the kind celebs are spreading, is that people started assuming the virus would be gone by Monday. On Sunday itself, we saw people coming out in droves, holding parades, and making noise according to the wishes of their Lord Savior Modiji.

Let’s face it, most of us human beings are simpleminded folk. We have the potential to believe anything if it tugs at our emotions a little bit, confirms our inherent biases and sparks this need to include other people in our collective comforting delusions.

But when you are a human being with millions of fans and followers, you really need to be careful about your simple minded ways. Not only are you believing in dangerous information that will make you act in a detrimental way, if you share it with your fans, you will make them act in a way which ends up hurting them as well.

So, dear celebrities, please stop spreading misinformation and only share information the World Health Organization and our government are putting out. If you get a Whatsapp forward saying “Issued by the Health Ministry of India”, please don’t believe it, google it instead and find out if the information was actually put out by anyone in government. If you are too lazy to check whether the information is authentic before sharing it, I recommend you log out of all your social media accounts, and keep such misinformation in your own head.

The other option is, put in some effort and do what Shah Rukh Khan did. Educate your fans!

One big question in all this is what can platforms do to check misinformation from being spread?

It’s practically impossible for any platform to find every little bit of information on something like coronavirus, which even scientists are currently working to understand. Obvious misinformation can be flagged, but what happens when a celebrity recommends a medicine which actually turns out to be deadly?

This is not an imaginary scenario, by the way. US President Donald Trump recommended a drug called Chloroquine to treat the virus and, as a result, three people in Nigeria overdosed on it. There was an instant price rise of 400 percent reported in parts of Nigeria too, meaning that the people who might actually need the drug might suffer.

When it comes to misinformation related to health and medicine, it’s not like the usual political propaganda. This has dire consequences and people in places we may not even think about end up suffering as a consequence.

Platforms like Twitter and Facebook can, of course, quickly remove posts containing obvious misinformation, but then should they really be taking a call on what is right information and what is wrong? It’s not like they have trained epidemiologists as moderators to browse through thousands and thousands of posts being put out.

One solution might be to put people like Bachchan on a timeout from Twitter when they spread obvious misinformation that can be life-threatening. Suspend the account for a few days and put out statements saying spreading wrong information has consequences. Perhaps that might send out a message to other people with large followings to be more careful.

Extraordinary times call for extraordinary actions.

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