On rumour mongering, and our responsibility

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Before defining what rumour is, isn’t it important to know what it does?

Once let lose, it proliferates more quickly than a virus. It causes more harm than a trillion or more bacteria harbouring your body. Its history of destruction is no less lethal than the great epidemics. In 2005, 950 people died because of a rumour. I would be grateful if you take it on yourself to research and know more about its sources.  It will be part of learning, an antibody to every rumour.          

We can approach rumour from different angles so as to see every side of its ugliness: epistemological side, social and societal side, and ethical side. Let me begin with knowledge. The classical definition of knowledge is that it’s a justified true belief (JTB).

Now going by the definition of rumour as “unverified information statements in circulation that arise in contexts of ambiguity, danger, or potential threat and that function to help people make sense and manage risk. (Difonzo & Bordia- 2007)”, a rumour can’t be mapped onto the definition of knowledge.

It simply doesn’t fit in the category of knowledge. It lacks each and every ingredient required for knowledge. How do I say it does? First, rumour is a statement which we call a proposition in the terminology of logic.

When a rumour is circulated, the propositional attitude humans have towards it is not that of a belief. Towards every statement or proposition, we maintain a mental attitude. For example, we believe it, we desire it, we doubt it or we intend it.

These are called propositional attitudes. But when it comes to a rumour, we either do all of these things or none of them at all. It’s due to rumour’s very vague and ambiguous nature that all of our mental attitudes essentially remain suspended. There’s a heavy handicap.

Now let’s take the second ingredient of knowledge: justification. Justification for any statement involves reasons for believing it to be true. Reasons or premises for any claim have to be rooted in some axioms which are those claims and statements whose truth is already established, or they’ve to come from original sources such as sensory experiences.

In the present context of Covid-19 epidemic here in Kashmir, our primary and perhaps only source is Whatsapp. I don’t think anything more needs to be said regarding this.

The last ingredient is truth. When you fail to have first two, it doesn’t matter what a truth-value a statement has. Even if a rumour be true, it’s still not knowledge and its truth-value won’t mitigate the harm it would bring in its wake. So much for epistemological side. Is that it for this side? No way. Please go and see yourself.

When it comes to ethical side, there can be no sin greater than rumour mongering. Our ideas precede our actions. If and when rumours turn into beliefs and are put into practice, everything is put at risk.

As I mentioned already in the beginning of this write-up, some rumour-monger had 950 people killed in August of 2005. What greater, bloodier and more horrible moral crime can there be than that? Moreover, when we fall prey to such things, our behavior is shaped accordingly.

Being incredulous or gullible affects our whole personality, which in turn manifests in our behavior. Now we being moral and social beings, our behavior causes ripples in the moral fabric of society. 

Human knowledge is a pool and this pool can get infected with falsehood. It matters what we pass on to our fellow beings and what we add to the pool. This pool is shared by every member in the society.

Each person can either borrow from it or add to it. So it’s our responsibility to keep this pool clean and guard it against any intrusion of any sort.

I request everyone to please verify every text you receive on Whatsapp or through other social media.

Take great pains over its verification. And if you can’t, then please don’t forward it to others. Let it stop at you. Let it go no further. It’s your epistemic, moral and social responsibility. Be the bearers and preachers of truth, knowledge, wisdom and virtue.   

Ubaidullah Pandit has studied Law and Information Technology.

ubaidullahpandit@gmail.com