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Updated: May 18, 2013 16:03 IST

This world’s wide web

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Illustration by Satwik Gade
Illustration by Satwik Gade

Have we become reluctant players in the Internet’s game of trust?

Who is Omar Borkan Al Gala? On the off chance that you missed this particular piece of news, he is allegedly one of the three men ‘ordered out’ of a cultural festival in Riyadh and/or ordered out of the Saudi Arabia by the religious police for being too handsome. You can choose your ending. Hundreds of headlines — ranging from seriously critical to badly punned and comical — did the cyberspace rounds last week, and gave us something to talk about. Righteous indignation, material for at least one good stand-up comedy act, dining table gossip — for those who had heard of him, Borkan’s chiselled face, complete with its finely crafted beard, lingered everywhere, just out of reach and very tempting.

Of course, this is a slightly ridiculous, slightly shocking story. This poor man suffered because his seductive appeal could send the pure and innocent women of the country into a hormonally-charged, uncontrollable frenzy. It’s a meaty piece of news. Why won’t you talk about it? So far, I’ve zeroed in on only one very valid reason: it might not be true.

While you were clicking the like button and getting into heated arguments about the unfairness of life (he can live in your house, if his country won’t have him!), someone forgot to fact check. And then, to make matters worse, or better for Borkan, no one remembered to fact check for forgotten facts. After combing through a bunch of contradictory bits of evidence, I’ve got this for you.

Most reports on the story cite either Elaph or Al Hayat, both Arab newspapers, as their original source. These newspapers, in turn, credit the information to an ‘anonymous official’. A popular gossip website was the first to claim that Borkan was one of these three Emirati men deported from Saudi Arabia. What this claim was based on — apart from a Facebook post by Borkan himself that included a link to one of the many reports about the case and no claim of actual involvement — no one knows. Immediately, the Internet denizens assumed Borkan was their man, and his popularity soared, his pictures were saved and his apparently uncomfortable good looks lauded. Personally, I’m sure we can find other very uncomfortably handsome men around, but that’s beside the point.

Now, while reports backed by little fact and a lot of conjecture were mushrooming on the Internet, there were other reports on websites trying to dispel myths and rumours about the Islamic world. These reports dismissed the story entirely. One claimed that neither were these men thrown out of a heritage and cultural festival nor were they deported, certainly not for being too handsome. Another official Saudi Arabian news website reported that the Mutawa (Saudi religious police) did storm the UAE pavilion during the festival, but were forced out by the national guards. The incident was apparently sparked by the presence of Aryam, an Emirati singer. According to the head of Mutawaeen, Sheikh Abdullah Al- Sheikh — Borkan was pulled up for dancing inappropriately in the family section of the festival and questioned by the guards, not thrown out of the country.

In the face of these contradicting reports and no factual backing, the story becomes clouded with doubt. I’m not here to pick a side. I’m just wondering, is it that easy on the Internet?

We haven’t sent a chain mail in years. We haven’t believed caps-locked and shiny announcements that tell us to claim our reward as the thousandth visitor on a website. We don’t reply to e-mails that inform us that an unknown relative has left us a million dollars in his will. We aren’t supposed to be gullible anymore. Didn’t we deal with that particular problem a while ago?

While we were deleting special offers and avoiding spam, it seems like things got a little worse. Today, we are unintentionally part of a very deceptive and potentially harmful nexus of uninformed consumers and unconcerned informers. Borkan’s story, with all the right ingredients, became instantly popular among teenage girls, indignant activists and news-enthusiasts.

No one seemed to be in a hurry to check for authenticity before taking their stand. And this piece of news, if false, is actually quite damning and incorrectly reinforces all the already existing stereotypes about Islamic nations. If true, it’s still at best a piece of half-baked gossip with no real sources.

Here is what you cannot do — you cannot stop the onslaught of misinformation on the Internet. If Dr. Frankenstein couldn’t stop a well-meaning, kindly monster that actually didn’t lie, we don’t have a chance. The Internet will throw at you ‘genuine photographs’ and ‘validated reports’ of dancing world leaders, unique black lions and beautiful men. It’s not a person. It doesn’t feel shame. It won’t stop because you don’t approve.

Here is what you can do — read a little more. One link isn’t enough. One claim, one quote, one picture and a few comments aren’t enough. They won’t make you an expert on a particular issue. They won’t even make you a student of that issue.

Yes, what they will do is allow you to come up with an interesting and witty status message for your social networking accounts, perhaps supplemented with the link. This in turn will have a three-fold result. It’ll garner likes and retweets. It’ll show your friends, subtly but firmly, that you read the news and keep yourself updated — an admirable quality. And lastly, it’ll go the distance in spreading this particular piece of news, complete with half-baked knowledge and a single link to the story. The circle, you can call it vicious, will start again.

The Internet has become one of our prime sources for news. It’s what we turn to when we want information, entertainment or just pictures of funny cats. Every day, it tells us that we don’t know enough. That there is much more we could know, much more we could find out. Today, Borkan’s story is already on the wane after its 15 minutes of fame.

In a few days, something else will capture our attention. But this time, let’s not make it so easy. Let’s not allow every story to go viral. Let’s not read an introduction, or a few hundred words, and encapsulate it in a sentence or two. This time, let’s dig and poke our noses. Let’s be curious.

If you find yourself forgetting all this, remember Borkan’s beautiful face. He’ll show you the way.

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