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Tuesday, 13 December 2016

‘Tabayyun’ in the age of social media

Sharing is not always caring, for we are responsible for verifying information before we forward it.

ADVANCEMENTS in information and communication technology have drastically revolutionised the way in which we communicate, as well as the way we access news and information.

Social media, online media and apps are commonly used today.

Communication is now more efficient and effective. What began as an Internet dial-up service for those who could afford it has today become a wireless necessity for many.

For many young people, communication using land lines, telegrams and snail mail are things that are found in history books. Today, communication can take place and information can be disseminated with only a touch of the screen.

However, the ease with which people access information also comes at a price. Many people do not take the effort to check and veri­fy the authenticity of the news and information obtained via social media.

Worse still, the attitude of “sha­ring is caring” results in unverified news and information being shared with others with great ease, so much so that it can become viral.

In this regard, it is important that we instil the culture of tabayyun, which is to check and verify news and information before accepting it as true.

Tabayyun is especially critical if we want to share and forward information to other people.

The importance of tabayyun is mentioned in verse 6 of Surah al-Hujurat in the Quran, which specifically stresses the importance of “ascertaining the truth” of any news that we receive so that we do not unwittingly bring about unwanted problems to others.

In inculcating the culture of tabayyun, we should keep in mind the following three points in handling information or news, especially those shared on social media.

Firstly, we must always make it a habit to check with the body or person of authority regarding the issue at hand. Unless and until we are certain that the news or information comes from a verified source, it is best not to share it with others.

As an example, if we receive information that casts doubts on the halal status of a product, we should first verify it with the autho­rity in charge of halal certification, which in this case is the Malaysian Islamic Development Department (Jakim), before we share such information with others.

Secondly, if we receive forwarded or shared news and information without a credible or identifiable source, chances are it is at best just rumour.

Trustworthy news and information always has credible and identifiable sources and authors.

On top of that, whoever writes the news report or article must take responsibility for what is written. If something is written anonymously, we should then take it with a pinch of salt.

Thirdly, when we receive forwarded or shared news and information, always double check and counter check its authenticity.

Some of the things that people share on social media tend to be “recycled” items that have made the rounds many years before. How­ever, when people share these today, they may be treated as if they are recent news.

Some time back, people were forwarding claims that a popular cho­colate-flavoured energy drink was produced by mixing it with worms, while a popular sardine brand was alleged to have used frog meat to thicken its sauce.

Most definitely these claims and allegations are very serious. It is odd that these allegations never made it to the news, because if they were genuine, it would have been all over the mainstream media.

Furthermore, if indeed these claims were true in the first place, surely the relevant authorities in charge of these issues would have taken the necessary action. Even the consumer associations would have set off alarm bells.

This is because the authorities in charge of monitoring and enforcing matters such as this (from the mi­­nis­tries, departments and agencies) as well as the watchdogs organisations (such as consumer associations) are fully aware that they carry a huge responsibility in ensu­ring that health and safety matters, as well as halal-status issues, are not taken for granted.

Had these claims been true, the public would have already been alerted by the authorities and relevant bodies.

It is incumbent upon the authorities and relevant bodies to carry out their responsibilities with integrity, and this includes ensuring that the public is kept informed on any cri­tical issues and developments.

If we take the trouble to do a bit of checking on our own, we would find that these same allegations had been circulating since 2009.

Unfortunately, the way in which they were shared recently made it seemed like they were recent.

If we have a choice between information shared on social media that cannot be verified or authenticated, and an official statement from the authority on the issue at hand, it is wiser to choose the latter.

With regards to the latter, we know exactly whom to hold accountable and responsible vis-à-vis the accuracy and authenticity of the information, whereas verification cannot be done in the case of the former.

While we ask the authorities to be responsible and accountable in their actions, we should also ensure that we are also responsible and accountable with the information and news that we share and forward.

This is to ensure that we do not create panic and dubiety without verifying and authenticating the information.

When we share something that is untrue, or worse, something that is purposely written with a motive to discredit others, then sharing becomes scare-mongering.

The “sharing is caring without checking” attitude does not bring about any good to anyone. Hence, we should be more responsible and accountable when we share news and information using social media.

Tabayyun requires us to think before we share, and to share only information that is verified and authenticated. If we are unsure, it is best not to share or forward such information.

Dr Shaikh Mohd Saifuddeen Shaikh Mohd Salleh is Senior Fellow and director with Ikim’s Centre for Science and Environment Studies. The views expressed here are entirely his own.

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