The Financial Express

Viral phenomenon: Tendency to be trendy

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Ababil birds getting prepared to attack the Israeli forces- youths might not believe such fake news, but many have believed and sent donations as well for Ababil’s food! From the Dalgona coffee trend to a certain furniture advertisement, social media users wake up to a new drama every day-- be it a harmless troll or detrimental toxicity. Unfortunately, among the overwhelming quantity of engagements, pausing to differ right from wrong has become an unpracticed habit.

When looked closely, viral contents on social media can be of several kinds. Some are fun games, some can be calls for help, and some are anodyne memes. Especially in the lockdown, viral trends and contents have been extra creative and entertaining. Makeup brush challenge, art challenge, Ludo rush, book-reading challenge, and many more trends continue contributing to people’s idea of entertainment and creativity-honing.

However, the mob is not always a mass of positivity and wholesomeness. A great amount of the viral contents prove to be a useless waste of time, or worse, ethically degrading to some extent. They might be false knowledge, plain problematic perspectives, and some can even prove to be straight-up online bullying and cheap bickering.

Mohammad Saiful Islam, a budding journalist from an English daily, thinks while there are some contents that might expose people to thoughtfulness, most of the viral posts tend to be a waste of hours. Just like the old times, when only a handful of aristocrats used to be scholars, philosophers, and scientists, today too, not everyone has the time and privilege to critically contemplate. Unfortunately, the ability to think does not come as a pair with the ability to read and write.

As more people have smartphones in their hands, the virtual world has more speakers. Confusion and misinformation often spread like wildfire. Information on social media can easily fall to the Chinese Whisper effect. As a result, a part of the crowd believes that the earth is flat, and COVID-19 is a hoax.

However, Saiful thinks this pandemic of misinformation shouldn't be suppressed under any strict law as it invades people's freedom and space.

“There are tons of viral contents which fall under the grey category and you can't categorise them as negative or positive only. Also, the definition changes with the difference in perspectives. What you call a waste of time might be useful for someone.”

He believes that to avoid being misinformed, carefulness on a personal level would be the most effective. Double-checking any fact before spreading it more, growing the habit to think more critically before grabbing a piece of news, and keeping oneself updated with trusted media or individuals are some ways to practice authenticity.

A current student of Psychology at Dhaka University, Lamia Islam, talks about the psychological reasons behind the lack of will to delving deep- “We tend to spread the stories that trigger our emotions and give us an adrenaline rush.”She also mentions how mob psychology takes part in making something viral.

“Most of the mob don't like to think much. They prefer to go with the flow. If someone sees that a lot of people around them are making fun of a person, then they would feel less hesitant about making fun as well. Mob psychology affects people enough to dim and justify their sense of right and wrong.”

She also mentions how the viral tendency is not always negative. This trend has proved to come in handy against unjust issues, and sometimes unnoticed criminal acts. The attention and public pressure created when such issues get viral sometimes force the authority to take action.

As an example, she mentions the acts of exposing sexual harassers and the MeToo movement. While she has seen a lot of women achieving a sense of justice to some level, she mentions the concerns about cancel culture and mob justice which is often a result of viral tendency. “It's a shame and concern that we have to rely on the mob for justice.”

The mass does not judge without bias. Most of the time, their thoughts are the result of the mob's subconscious manipulation. As an example, unjust pointing, misdirected anger, and hatred against some communities like liberals, certain fandoms, communal minorities, etc. have turned into a viral trend. Misconceptions about anything and everything have spread online like fungus. On top of that, a big part of the hate comes without any valid reason, just because it gives the haters a sense of belonging to pin down their insecurity about ignorance.

According to MIT News, one of their studies suggests that fake news on Twitter spreads six times faster than true news, and false news stories are 70 per cent more likely to be retweeted than true stories are.  The researchers tracked 126,000 torrents of news that were cumulatively retweeted over 4.3 million times by 3 million people from the years 2006 to 2017 to conduct the research. The team used the calculations of six fact-checking organisations- factcheck.org, hoax-slayer.com, politifact.com, snopes.com, truthorfiction.com, and urbanlegends.about.com. They have found that their decision coincided more than 95 per cent of the time.

One of the authors of this study, Sinan Aral, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management commented on their work- “False news is more novel, and people are more likely to share novel information. People who share novel information are seen as being in the know.” On social media, people gain more responsiveness by being the first to share something previously unknown and amusing.

MIT scholars noted that people respond differently to false and true news. While false news provokes shock and repulsion, true stories are generally considered by sadness, anticipation, and hope. Therefore, even though the ‘novelty hypothesis’ is not the only reason for false news spreading faster, it works as an important catalyst.

Perhaps as long as people would think that the truth is grey and the lies are sweet, the viral tendency would continue doing more harm than good. Because of fake news getting viral like a pandemic, even offline harms are happening all over the world every day. Misinformation about medical issues is particularly notorious.

When someone free from the spell sees how dark the other side of the coin can be, they might wonder if such unbalanced madness is normal. The viral tendency can be a blessing only when most of the mass learns to delve deep, only when most of their intentions would be good, and when most of the people would miraculously start loving the truth. Until then, like Sophocles, the ancient Greek tragedians, said, "Nothing vast enters the world of mortals without a curse."

Mehenaz Sultana Tisha is a student of English at Shahjalal University of Science and Technology.

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