Modern technology is an amazingly powerful tool. In the Middle East, the wave of revolution we saw recently was powered to a very considerable extent by e-mailed and SMS-ed messages, which brought people together in squares and on the streets in huge numbers to topple those mighty dictators who had long been considered invincible. And who had themselves appeared to believe their reigns would never end.
The methods used by the mainly younger people, who spear-headed the revolutions, in Tunisia, Syria, Egypt and Libya indicated just how times have changed and how technology so many of us now carry on a routine basis in our pockets has quite literally altered the fortunes of nations.
The role of the Internet, and the information that floats through it, has great power. It can provide us of course with a great deal of knowledge and keep us in touch with all kinds of events occurring in any part of the world.
The ‘new media’ has of course opened up space that had never existed before, allowing anyone to view. The world has to a very great extent changed because of this and this change has taken place in a very short period of time.
While there are all kinds of benefits that come from this technology, there is of course also a downside to the extensive use of it. In our country, the e-mailed and texted accounts which drift into our lives as we open our in-boxes too often consist of nothing but wild rumours, some circulated maliciously, some merely to cause a sensation and the largest number simply forwarded innocently by those who appear to believe anything they read in print, especially when it targets influential people who have already been much maligned in our society.
Rumours of all kind circulate quite freely. Some involve the origins of broiler chickens or other such matters. Others spread hoaxed stories intended to scare people, with the same tales repeated and again and again, decade after decade. Many can easily be exposed as untrue by checking them at sites such as ‘snopes.com’, or other locations on the Web which specialise in exposing frauds.
In many cases the mails that demand they be forwarded to others are actually intended to collect a host of e-mail addresses.
Recently, however, in our country we have also seen the net being used to impact political thinking. One of the latest examples of this is an email going around which suggests that the daughter of a former chief justice of Pakistan may have been killed in an ‘honour killing’ incident.
The story told in the mail speaks of a massive media cover-up. It is quite obvious to media professionals that the tale is a hoax. Such events cannot be kept hidden from a very active media which is in many cases hostile to the government anyway.
It is almost impossible to believe a crime as grave as the one cited, involving people who hold much prominence, could have been whisked away from beyond the reach of reporters and anchor people. It is also inconceivable it could have been eliminated from news pages. The only purpose behind the story seems to be to tarnish images.
What is frightening is that a very large number of people believe such mails or the other rumours that do the rounds at every social gathering. One reason for this is the fact that in our society so many scams and scandals take place that it has become possible to believe anything.
Where so much wrong-doing exists, people naturally find it more difficult to distinguish fact from fiction and to determine where reality lies. The chaotic manner in which so many affairs of state are conducted makes it easier to create more chaos and create still greater anxiety and anarchy in the society. This is what we are seeing today.
For all its benefits, the Internet also presents a whole host of dangers. These need to be guarded against. Unfortunately the methods used to attempt this have been rather warped. Some time ago the interior minister made a vague – and completely unrealistic plan to ban SMS messages containing certain words or names. Not surprisingly, the scheme failed entirely.
The vicious PTA crackdown on websites of all kinds has been more successful but amounts to just the kind of suppression that we need to avoid.
The only way to prevent tall tales of all kinds from being sent out over cyber space with a click of a single button is really by improving the governance and the manner in which things are run in the country.
Otherwise it becomes too easy to believe all kinds of stories and innuendos. This of course damages individuals and also creates an even greater sense of unease than the one we confront right now.
The Internet is misused all over the world. This is happening in our country too. The only way to prevent it is to build a greater credibility for institution and the people who run them. Speaking of politics, we have also recently run into the issue of privacy and its invasion.
At least one tech-savvy party is using the recorded voice by its leader to make unsolicited phone calls to individuals using a ‘hidden number’ with a long soliloquy delivered as soon as the unsuspecting recipient picks up his or her phone. While this may not count as a major offence, it does amount to annoyance and creates a disturbance in life for many.
As technology grows within our country we need to see how best we can govern its use. This governance must come only from the people themselves and not be imposed in any way by the authorities. The balance is a delicate one, especially in a society where conspiracies and drama are popular themes. But we can only hope that in time people will develop maturity and a greater ability to see through the frosted glass of the Internet, which can both teach and deceive.
The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor. Email: email@example.com