Rivers of blood

 Published in: The Daily Star on September 21, 2016
Rivers of blood

The holidays lasted forever. The trip, the food, the extra calorie-packed week smelt delicious, spoilt us and made most of us weigh the work-life options once again. Yes, it definitely feels great not to be working and for doing the bare minimum just to keep the routine going. An occasional checking of the inbox of the mail folder, a few responses coupled with a few “out-of-office” vacation notices definitely feel rewarding. After all, apparently the more rested we are, the better we perform when we get back to our desks.

In reality, South Asia is probably one of the regions where we look for holidays every month. Even October has a few. Wow. However, our holidays are not as restful as before. When we were young, a bliss that accompanied holidays was the luxury of not keeping up with news. The only one television channel used to air programmes appropriate for the holiday season and often our evenings were packed with “Amjad Hossain” dramas. The television announcer would only talk about what the President and the Prime Minister were doing and slide on to cultural news and further, since there were no talk shows, there was no one to dissect the neighbourhood fly, no one to disgrace the opponent, no one to vilify the villain. But then again, those were the times when real revolution happened. Quite thankfully, Ekushey, Ekattor, Ekanobboi happened without the Facebook or Twitter storm.

I personally deactivated my Facebook account three years ago after being traumatised by the social updates. I discovered that my peers were having a great time when I wasn’t. So, driven by sheer jealousy and resentment, I closed mine down. This holiday season, I decided that I was missing a bit too much and therefore, perhaps, I could possibly reactivate my account and start afresh. And I also decided that I would have no more than 50 FB friends this time around. So I attempted the unimaginable. I registered and reopened my old Facebook account. And guess what? I lasted less than a minute. The noise, the nag and the news got to me in less than thirty seconds. I almost instantly knew that my grand pursuit of connectivity would take a toll on my health while I looked at one of the first pictures trending on “rivers of blood.” The post-qurbani scene of cows being sacrificed is stressful, but then when it is accompanied by scenes of their blood mixed with water flowing through the streets, then that certainly is enough to kill our Eid for good. In the span of the sixty seconds that I lasted in FB, I also exposed myself to a number of photos of cow-selfies, which gave birth to a crucial question: are we losing it? As a nation, are we ticking our boxes of reality checks?

When we were young, the paper-boy used to take a holiday after Eid as there were no papers. These days, there’s no getting away from news. The online wings of the prints tirelessly work 24/7 and cater news to our fancies. After all, consumerism has hit us hard and there’s no question of taking breaks at any point. So, today we have virtual shelves of libraries, books, news and gossip that we can subscribe to and be directed to what and when we want to read. Thanks to the hashtag generation, the specificity of news is also defined so that we can only read what we want to. For example, when I typed “contagious” this morning on my twitter, I ended up with over a thousand links to articles that talked about Hillary’s “contagious” pneumonia, instead of any reference to other medical ailments that are contagious. This is how news, too, becomes contagious.

On the next day of Eid, what happened was worse. Crafted carefully by the media outlet, an online version had carried multiple photos of “rivers of blood” in Dhaka. Two of the four pictures were quoted to be taken from “Facebook” sources. But, ah, yes, why do we forget that we are trying to breed citizen journalism at our ends? Of course, we need reporters in every house reporting every single dinner-time conversation down to sick selfies with the poor, harmless animals. As a result of this, every malaise needs to be reported and if it isn’t gory enough, then it’s made so by using our genius computer skills and by adding colour. Now, who tests the authenticity of the photos picked up from Facebook? Which media outlet practices responsible journalism by flaunting FB photos? Very unfortunately, the same news item was picked up by Times of India. So, when I landed in Kolkata, the first thing staring me on the face was the same FB picture of a “river of blood” from Dhaka. CNN and The Guardian tailed and picked up the story, and the story spread like wildfire. Point is, any story requires specific locations. The one covered in the local online news portal carried four photos, and had named the locations of the “rivers of blood” of two whereas the other remained taken from “Facebook”. But the news cleverly packed Dhaka under one umbrella and blamed “entire” Dhaka for the lack of drainage and water logging. This is how it became a conversation centrepiece for many in town. This is how stories catch on. Now, how do we really spread stories or make events viral? Simple. Following what others do. Believing in what others post. And replicating the story through word of mouth or social media. This is how Sayeedee had gone to the moon, remember?

While I understand that media must make enough noise to make money and go viral, none of us ought to follow “monkey see, monkey do” policy to increase circulation.

In the Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell had argued that social epidemics are spread by the “efforts of a handful of exceptional people” whom we called mavens, connectors or salesmen. He also wrote, “One in 10 American tells the other nine where to vote, where to eat, and what to buy.” This is just one example of a far bigger phenomenon. People naturally imitate. People naturally tend to believe. Think about a food court. We end up in a queue which is the longest in a restaurant, just because we naturally assume that the long queue there must be worth it and people must be standing there for hours for a reason. This is how we vote when our partners vote; we quit smoking when our friends do; get fat when our friends become obese. Television shows often use canned laugh tracks so that we are more likely to laugh when we hear other people laugh.

In our lives, we try and look for social proofs and replicate other events, other practices, other lives, et al. We also try and promote ourselves, our lives, our products with valuable virility. Most of us use social media to be viral. But being viral with responsibility is a difficult task and being responsible while reporting to the public is even more challenging. Media make and unmake; hence, irresponsible reporting by media mavens based on unreliable borrowed sources may attract more ‘like’s and may trigger international attention, but it certainly does not represent being accountable to the flag that we all live and die for.