IT HAS happened again. Somebody gets a “juicy” rumour from an acquaintance, and decides to forward it to just about everyone he or she knows – easily done in today’s world of instantaneous electronic communications.
The rumour gathers momentum, and the snowball effect results in everybody talking about it, and worse, taking it as true. Doubting Thomases are nudged aside and assumed to be too naive to know what’s “really going down.”
The conspiracy theorists of course have got their information from that most credible of sources – an anonymous poster with an obscure background who knows someone who happens to know that other person who was there!
And it must be true after all, since it came via SMS (short message service) or e-mail.
Yes, we Malaysians have fallen hook, line and sinker for yet another hoax propagated through electronic means. The latest was the SMS hoax that the G2000 clothing outlet at 1Utama Shopping Centre in Petaling Jaya had been closed because one of its employees had been infected with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).
It was just the latest in a string of hoaxes. Remember the “cyber-rumours” of race riots in Kuala Lumpur’s Chow Kit Road a few years ago? The two SMS hoaxes last year, one on traffic summonses and the other on rebates? The rumours of terrorist bombing attacks earlier this year? The list goes on.
Such hoaxes play on both our human frailties, and our strengths. The former could be our insatiable appetite for juicy rumours and the desire to be the bearer of bad tidings, thus being the centre of attention for a brief moment.
The latter? Our concern for our loved ones and fellow human beings.
Whatever the motive, many of us forward such messages without any thought of the consequences. Better to be safe than sorry we figure, because even if the rumour is untrue, no damage would have been done.
Except that it does cause damage. In the G2000 incident, it caused economic damage. In the Chow Kit case, it caused widespread panic. Rumours can lead to defamation and slander, or damage to a person’s reputation. When inciting panic, it may harm people.
The insidious thing about rumours is that ignoring them may not be the easiest thing in the world to do either. What if it’s true? That little seed of doubt will play on your mind.
So what can you do when you get such an e-mail or SMS?
Well, the first step would be to ask yourself some questions. Who was the source of that information? Does he give his real world identity, which can be easily verified? Why not? Why didn’t he or she report it to the authorities? What was the date of the first message? Why didn’t you hear of it before?
As with any information you get, be critical.
The second step would be to see if you can verify at least some of the facts. This is especially easy with all those computer virus hoaxes that keep popping up every now and then. Check the websites of any reputable anti virus authority or better still, with the technical department in your company.
Not all rumours are easily verified however. If so, you might want to check with any reputable newspaper or media organisation. Even if they can’t immediately dispel the rumour, they would investigate further.
Call up people you know who should have knowledge of these things.
If the rumour centres on a place, see if you can contact someone you know there to check it out.
Finally, if you tried all this and you still can’t get anywhere, ask yourself one last question before you’re tempted to forward that message: “Would I be doing the right thing?”
Because if you are not, you’re going to be a part of the problem.
Whatever answer you come up with, don’t ever forward defamatory statements. Just as you shouldn’t badmouth a person in the “real world,” you shouldn’t do it in the cyber world either. And just as you can be sued for defamation in the real world, you can be sued for defamation in the cyber world.
Energy, Communications and Multimedia Minister Datuk Amar Leo Moggie in March said there were nine million cell phone users in Malaysia as at the end of last year. There were about two billion SMS messages sent last year, according to statistics from research firm IDC Malaysia.
Malaysians sent 439 million SMS messages last January alone, compared to 390 million messages the month before.
Communications technology has put great tools like the Internet and cell phones into the hands of everyday Malaysians. We cannot only produce information, but as users of such technology, we’ve become nodes in a vast web of information creation and dissemination.
We’re now more empowered than ever before, but with that empowerment comes the need to use technology responsibly and critically.