Our hyper-networked world has given us super-human powers. Sometimes this has been beneficial. But of late, there is a dangerous side to being able to communicate quickly and without the need to reflect.
At least two dozen people have been killed in mob lynchings in India since the start of the year, their deaths fueled by rumors that spread on WhatsApp, the Facebook-owned messaging service. In Brazil, messages on WhatsApp falsely claimed a government-mandated yellow-fever vaccine was dangerous, leading people to avoid it. And as Mexico was heading into its presidential election this month, experts there called WhatsApp the ugly underbelly of the country’s news environment, a place where politically misleading stories, memes and messages can spread unchecked.
On WhatsApp, with 1.5 billion users, information can go viral in minutes as individuals forward messages along to their friends or groups, without any way to determine its origin.
I was one of the people who believed that more communication between people could only be to the betterment of all. I was wrong.
I don’t believe we can put this particular power, this djinn, back in the bottle again. So we’re going to have to pay close attention to how we use it. A thoughtless joke can destroy a life. A pointed online rumor can tear apart a community. Sometimes these sorts of things are happening by mistake, but they are also being done on purpose by people who just want to see the destruction that they can create by doing it.
I’m not sure what the right answer is, but we might start by being intentional about our need for self-control (the Christian virtue of temperance) and humility. Our words, launched into the ether, have the power to kill. Words have always had that power, but today, when they can be spread at the speed of the network, the damage a word uttered in a hateful way is magnified far beyond what we have previously experienced.
I’ve read that the greek word “diablos” from which we get the english word “diabolical” originally meant someone who divided the community by telling lies (a calumniator). I think that’s a word use we need to keep in mind from now on.