In October last year, the Kannur district administration issued a directive that parents who did not want to administer MR vaccine to their children should get a signature from the district collector.
To his horror, Collector Mir Muhammed Ali found many people queuing outside his office, asking for exemption from the vaccination programme. Kannur, like many other districts in Kerala, was at that time facing a low turnout for its MR vaccination drive, as the anti-vaccine lobby gained popularity.
When he asked a parent why he objected to administering vaccine to his child, pat came the reply: âVaccination is harmful, I saw it on WhatsApp.â
It was then that Collector Mir Muhammed realised the extent to which ordinary people blindly relied on WhatsApp forwards.
Months later, on Wednesday, the district administration launched an initiative to combat false information and fake news. Called âSatyamev Jayateâ, the initiative will see school children being trained to identify false information.
âPeople are quite gullible and they hardly question things. When they get a message, they circulate it thinking itâs true. They hardly bother to check the source of the information or verify its credibility,â says the Collector in a telephonic conversation with TNM.
How the initiative works
Training will be given to high school and higher secondary school students in the district, to identify false information and inculcate the need to question the authenticity of the messages they receive. As a first step, 150 teachers from schools were identified and given a one-day training. The initiative was inaugurated on Wednesday, with the Collector giving training to the teachers, who will go back to their schools and train the students.
The anti-vaccination lobby that gained strength through social media is what prompted the Collector to come up with an initiative to encourage scientific temper in people. The false information being propagated through social media during the Nipah outbreak recently cemented his belief that it was time the district administration steps in to solve the issue.
âWe all feel we do not play any role in spreading fake news, but in fact we do. We are promoting false information when we share a message on social media without verifying if it is true. We are propagating it when we do not point out in WhatsApp groups that a message posted there is false. There are many reasons why people tend to forward false information. According to a research conducted by MIT, a lie gets circulated faster than a truth. And also, people want to be the first ones to pass on an information, which paves the way for incorrect messages to circulate,â Mir explains.
At the workshop, the teachers were trained in identifying false information and also the means by which one can look for the source of any information they receive.
âWe all live in a filter bubble, we choose our news sources. This means that we are exposed only to one kind of information, be it genuine or not. During the training, we urged the teachers to google and look for authentic sources, say news reports. This way, they can check the authenticity of the information,â the Collector said.
The Collector believes that it is important to train school students since most of them now have access to their parentsâ mobile phones.
âIt is important to tell children how to identify false news, since their parents may often be gullible and forward false information without verifying. We want children to tell their parents that everything they receive on WhatsApp may not be true. In fact, just after our workshop for teachers got over, one of the teachers got a WhatsApp message claiming that our national anthem has been given an UNESCO award,â he adds.
When WhatsApp messages lead to crime
In Tamil Nadu, there have been at least three recent instances where WhatsApp messages triggered violent crimes, in which mobs lynched people to death.
One such instance happened after people saw a child kidnapping video being circulated claiming it happened in Tamil Nadu. However, it was in fact an educational video made in Karachi, Pakistan, at least a year ago, to warn parents about child traffickers.
In Kannur too, there have been a few instances where such messages led to minor tensions, the Collector says.
âFrom a Kannur perspective, we wanted to make sure that crimes do not happen as a result of false information,â he adds.
Training will be given to the 150 schools shortlisted for the first phase in the next two months, after which the programme will be extended to cover more schools.