The bloopers on social media websites over the past week have been many. Does it signal the end of the honeymoon period of the medium? Nikhil Varma does some networking to find out

Social media has long been hailed as the best invention of the Internet age, changing the manner in which people communicate and in which news spreads. Conventional news channels and papers have been forced to change the manner in which news is dispatched. Social media was also credited for paving the way for the Arab spring, which saw a host of dictatorships in North Africa being toppled by popular revolutions, helped by the power of the social media to reach millions.

However, the past week has been terrible for the medium. For starters, a public interest litigation filed by a publicity-hungry lawyer, seeking to make watching pornography a non-bailable offence in the Supreme Court. The court asked the Government for its views on the issue. However, on twitter, the hashtag #pornban began to spread like a virus with users taking to the site to protest against a government ban that never existed in the first place. Mathew Varghese, a HR professional, was confused with the news stream he followed on twitter. “The Boston bombings had taken place in the morning and I was following that on TV. Suddenly, the rumour that the government was taking steps to ban pornography went viral. I could not find any such information on any news sites. The government got castigated for something it did not have a clue about, for an entire day.”

The next day, as a bomb blast near the BJP office in Bangalore spooked the city, rumours floated of another blast in the city in Hebbal, this time aided by shoddy reporting by local TV channels. “We heard some sounds in the distance and got really worried, when we heard news of another bomb blast on local TV. The news was not confirmed by the police and before the police could issue a clarification that there was no such blast, panic had been spread by the social media and news channels,” says Arvind Krishna, an engineer working at the Manyata Tech Park. His friend, Prakash says, “I saw even prominent news people I follow on twitter talking about another blast in the city. The problem with sites such as Twitter and Facebook is that in times of crisis, even unfounded rumours travel far and wide. It is also very difficult to dispel all such rumours in such crisis situation.”

The most high profile case was that of Sunil Tripathi, a student of Brown University in the United States who had gone missing a month ago. Users on Redditt, a social media site saw many similarities between him and the sketches of one of the Boston bombing suspects. Even as the manhunt to catch the suspect was underway, news that an Indian-origin student may be involved in the bombings went viral online. The twitterati right wing and left wing fought pitched battles online, even as personal pictures of the boy went online. A page setup by Tripathi’s family and friends on facebook to search for him had to be pulled down after being subject to abuse and vandalism. “It was tragic that a boy who was missing became a suspect — all created by the social media. People watch TV shows like Sherlock and assume that they can solve crimes on their own.”

Judge authenticity first

Blaming the social media and websites is not entirely correct feels prominent tweeter from Bangalore, Tinu Abraham Cherian. “Social media is an unregulated media with a lot of information. People need to judge the authenticity of these reports. Recently, the image of a man with a lady on his lap was attributed to one of the famous godmen in India. It took only a few minutes for me to find out the picture was of a yoga couple in the USA and not the godman. All information that one receives on the social media must be taken with a pinch of salt.”

The human tendency to gain fame and to spread gossip is magnified in impact, thanks to social media sites such as twitter and facebook, contends psychologist Sham Bhatt. “It is a new medium and people are just getting used to working with it. Rumours do spread quick and often may create problems for many people. However, we must remember that the social media helped spread the message and helped in revolutions across the middle east and closer home helped garner public support for a variety of causes. It is a positive tool. The need of the day is to ensure that before sharing any information online, people verify the information and not blindly post it online.”