Representational image: Flickr Commons
Representational image: Flickr Commons

After last month’s fatal Mumbai railway station stampede, a respected newspaper carried this stomach-churning headline: “Dying woman molested, video shows”. The bystander in the video accused of “molesting” the dying lady, it turned out later, was actually helping her.

The south India-based daily that published the report apologized two days later for “failure to adhere to journalistic norms.” Had the man falsely accused already been fired from his job? Life-changing damage to people’s reputations is only one of the risks of information being hastily and incorrectly packaged and delivered.

Deliberately adulterated information – particularly when information factories frantically chase page views, television ratings, or funding from dubious sources – presents us with one of the most compelling challenges of our 21st-century lives: how to benefit from a level of information wealth unprecedented in human history, without becoming “information-poisoned.”

Like food poisoning, information poisoning can be lethal: Incorrect information infects the thought process, with the biased mind making wrong choices – whether its relationships, career, voting or investing

Like food poisoning, information poisoning can be lethal: Incorrect information infects the thought process, with the biased mind making wrong choices – whether its relationships, work, voting or investing.

Check the original source, trainee journalists are told. Check the context, ensure accuracy. Be objective. Don’t jump to conclusions. Confirm facts, don’t assume, or presume.

About 15 years ago, I wrote a monthly column called “Mind Age” for a leading airline’s inflight magazine. The “Mind Age” is a term I invented for the era we live in where far more attention is given to harnessing the enormous power of the human mind. But information poisoning sabotages this mind power, as adulterated fuel can destroy a Rolls-Royce Trent 800 engines propelling a Boeing 777.

When the “Mind Age” column appeared, Google was in its infancy, cellphone cameras were a novelty, “Twitter”, “blog” and “social media” were little-known words – and I already thought we were living in an information wonderland.

About 14 years later, in 2016, Reston, Virginia-based technology consultancy Excelacom estimated what happens every 60 seconds on the Internet: 150 million e-mails, 20.8 million WhatsApp messages, 701,389 Facebook logins, 347,222 tweets,  2.4 million Google search queries. This is the interconnected world that impacts our life, every minute.

Children of salt-pan workers in the remote area of Rann of Kutch, India, huddle around a Wi-Fi van to experience the Internet for the first time. 

‘Easier to fool educated people’

Near the home of my friends Ajoy and Sabarni’ in Kolkata is a street called P C Sorcar Sarani. Like his legendary father before him, P C Sorcar Jr is one of Asia’s best-known magicians (illusionists). For me, journalism is the most interesting profession in the world because it gives access to unlikely places such as inside a navy submarine, and  “inside” the minds of unusual people like Sorcar.

It is “easier to fool educated people,” Sorcar told me in an interview two decades ago. As we were talking, he waved his hands and a steel matchbox on the table suddenly vanished into thin air, right before my eyes. He grinned at my astonishment and said: “A child would have said, ‘Show me your hand.’” And the matchbox was there.

Education and knowledge can create boundaries of what is possible and impossible, Sorcar said. He uses these boundaries to turn the impossible into “possible.” He made the Taj Mahal “vanish” for two minutes on November 8, 2000. Likewise, illusions and delusions can trick us in real life.

India’s top magician P C. Sorcar performs in Siliguri, India, on June 3, 2008. 

Is it easier to fool educated people? Four years before I met Sorcar, I had an experience that supported what he said. In 1991, with the permission of editors of one of India’s oldest newspapers, I wrote an April Fools’ Day spoof about impending extraterrestrial (UFO) landings in a remote village.

We packed the spoof with “technical” details, courtesy of an afternoon in the British Council Library. The article contained clues that it was an April Fool spoof, but when the story hit the newsstands on a Sunday, the city buzzed. Government officials called for details, and a local television station wanted to send a news crew.

In the evening, a “colonel” telephoned asking the editors to come the next day to the local air force base to brief his fighter pilots, who were “on alert.” The newspaper bosses hastily called a meeting – until a friend sent them a note saying the air force “colonel” was himself a fake, and that those “who fool can also be fooled.” A front-page note the next day explained the April 1 spoof, and we had a good laugh.

That was my first and last spoof article, and it taught me a life-long lesson in gullibility: how easily the media can fool people with fake news, and how easily the media can get fooled.

Puppets on information strings

The coastal town of New Haven, Connecticut, is credited with being the birthplace of Yale University (1701), of hamburgers (1900), Frank Pepe’s thin-crust “apizza” (1925), and tech pioneer Vinton Cerf (1943).

Cerf is one of the founding fathers of the Internet. “The most pressing question for the future of the Internet is not how the technology will change, but how the process of change and evolution itself will be managed,” he and eight other Internet creators* wrote in the definitive A brief history of the Internet. Their article was published in 1997.  The following year, Google was born.

Cerf, Bob Kahn and Co referred to the technological challenges of managing the fast-evolving Internet. But more pertinent is the individual challenge of managing the information tsunamis the Internet unleashes every minute.

About 13,000 kilometers east of Cerf’s Connecticut birthplace is the little-known town of Kesariya, Champaran district, on National Highway 28 running through the eastern Indian state of Bihar. More than 2,500 years ago, Kesariya was called Kesaputta, part of the republic inhabited by a clan called the Kalamas. The Kalamas’ claim to fame in history is being recipients of the first-ever charter of freedom of thought.

The Kalamas were told not to believe in anything merely because of hearsay, tradition, popular talk, or dogma; don’t even blindly accept the ancient wisdom of great teachers. But accept something as beneficial and true, they were told, only after directly experiencing it as the truth. It’s a timeless tutorial not to be fooled with fake information.

A biased mind more readily swallows information within one’s comfort zone. Expert media manipulators exploit that weakness.

From insidious marketing campaigns to e-mail scammers, from “viral” fake videos to news manipulation, information poisoning turns us into puppets on strings. Then we accept the false, reject the truth, do what we should not and suffer stress. Cut those strings, and be free.

Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, at the 20th International World Wide Web Conference in Hyderabad, India, on March 31, 2011.

Fortunately, I almost simultaneously received powerful tools of the information revolution and the Mind Age. In 1993, about a year before  my piece “Cyberspace” appeared in “The Statesman” (India’s first newspaper column exclusively focused on the Internet), a social worker told me about a strange place in Jaipur, Rajasthan. There you keep silent for 10 days, and no fees are charged, including for the stay. All for free? Off I went.

It is easy to get inspirational books or sermons telling you how to have a better life. Intellectual understanding helps, but practical experience works better. We cannot learn swimming or cycling from books. In Dhamma Thali, Rajasthan, I received the actual, practical mind-tool to separate reality from apparent reality, how to develop the insight to see things as they really are – not as they seem to be. It is very hard and initially painful work to open the dark, hidden dungeons in the mind. But my life and priorities changed.

I cannot change the world, but I can change myself – as in dealing with potent information adulteration. Each individual can be a gatekeeper to guard one’s mind against false perceptions, bias, assumptions, presumptions – all leading to wrong decisions. The antidote to information poisoning is training the mind not to blindly believe whatever information is received – whether it is office gossip or television news.

Not to react blindly, and to be wary of self-delusion, is not easy, but is needed to prevent information poisoning.

Like the kitchen knife that can be used to cook or to kill, benefiting or suffering from the information revolution depends on individual use. A good start is making a habit of asking, “Is this is a fact?” Finding the answer could save a reputation, a job, a relationship, and even a life.

* Nine Internet creators (among many others, like World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee, who accelerated evolution of the Internet): Barry M Leiner, Vinton G Cerf, David D Clark, Robert E Kahn, Leonard Kleinrock, Daniel C Lynch, Jon Postel, Larry G Roberts, Stephen Wolff.

Raja Murthy

Raja Murthy is an independent journalist who has contributed to Asia Times since 2003, The Statesman since 1990, and formerly the Times of India, Economic Times, Elle, and others. He shuttles between Mumbai and the Himalayas.

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