Uzokwe's Searchlight

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Alfred Obiora Uzokwe, P.E



n average, I get not less than 40 WhatsApp messages on my phone every day from friends, family and contemporaries. Some of the messages are mere text or video jokes that are harmless, hilarious and leave me reeling with laughter. A few are actual text messages that convey "information" like weddings, death announcements, gospel events and others. Others are "informational messages" like someone discussing the supposed efficacy of the use of a certain fruit, vegetable or vitamin in "curing or prevention" of diseases. I also get videos showing "men of God" purportedly healing the infirm, restoring the sights of the hitherto blind or making paraplegics walk again. Because these avalanche of information are often forwarded and do not bear the names of the authors or originators, one cannot assess their genuineness and accuracy. When one adds that to the fact that most of the forwarded messages are not vetted by anyone, the waters become even murkier.

For example, sometime ago, someone forwarded a picture of a snake with multiple heads or so to me on WhatsApp. The person who forwarded the picture to me received it from someone else and was just forwarding to me and other people in his contact list. The sender was so convinced about the genuineness of the picture that he added a text to it that read: "all these weird happenings are testaments to the fact that the end of the world is near". He further added that it is "written that towards the end, many unusual things will be happening in the world." To him, a snake with many heads was one of the weird things that should alert the world of end times. I took one look at the picture and could immediately tell that it was a photoshop! I simply sent a one-line text to the sender that said: "this picture is doctored, there is no 9-headed snake". Of course, I was branded an unbeliever because I had deflated the hope he had of using the information to convince people about the nearness of the end times.

I have gotten forwarded messages that purport to come from medical experts asking people to do certain things that will improve their health. On reviewing the messages with the little knowledge I have from high school biology and health science, I often concluded that what was being bandied could actually put people's health in serious jeopardy if complied with. One of the messages I got recently, purportedly coming from a "Dr Gupta", asserts that drinking a concoction or cocktail of lemon was 100 times more potent than chemotherapy in fighting or treating cancer! It also claimed that people who drink it will never get cancer. Some reading this might say that this is an obvious fallacy. But the truth is that in this day and age, WhatsApp messages go out to any and all people. They go to the educated and discerning but also to the less uneducated. As long as one has a cell phone and WhatsApp, one is bound to get those messages. There are people out there that through no fault of theirs and because of lack of information or education, believe whatever they get from WhatsApp. For such people, especially in Africa, it is possible that if faced with deadly ailments that include cancer, instead of seeking the proper treatment, they may start self-medicating with lemon juice just because "Dr Gupta" said so. By the way, who is this Dr Gupta?

The other day, a WhatsApp message was forwarded to me. The message read that one of the ways humans can keep healthy and ward off sicknesses, was to eat raw garlic every morning on empty stomach! Yes, you read it right, empty stomach. Granted, garlic has medicinal effects but because of its strong acidic and pungent properties, if eaten on empty stomach, it has the ability of "eating' into the lining of the intestine leading to stomach bleeding or may slowly begin to erode the finger-like villi in the intestine that aid absorption. Asking people to eat garlic raw on empty stomach is almost tantamount to asking them to swallow mild poison! I know that the person that forwarded the message did not mean any harm but was just spreading what he thought was great medical news to friends and family. However, what he may not have known was that by forwarding the message, he may have inadvertently become an unwilling accomplice in spreading false and unfounded medical news that could threaten the lives of his loved ones. Again, some readers could say who would be stupid enough to eat garlic on empty stomach. Well, someone who is desperate for a cure for stomach ailments but has little education could see this and assume that since it may again be coming from "Dr Gupta", that it is true.

Not too long ago, a message was forwarded to me and others on WhatsApp. It simply said that the Nigerian government was about to embark on forced vaccination of children in the South East. It called on parents to resist the vaccination attempt because, according to the message, it was an attempt by the Federal government to reduce the population of the South easterners by injecting disease into the children. It even included a picture of people suffering from a disease called monkey pox in south south which was purportedly caused by forced vaccination of children in the area. When I read this, I was furious at the sender. I thought to myself that the sender was well educated and should know better than spreading a rumor of that nature. Again, in fairness to the sender, he believed in his heart that it was true. His argument was that the vaccination contingent comprised of both health workers and Nigerian soldiers. He argued that if the government had good intentions, they would not send soldiers along with health workers to go to schools in the south east to vaccinate children. He also cited the "recent killings" of south easterners agitating for Indigenous State of Biafra by soldiers and asked how it was possible that the same soldiers that went to Nnamdi Kanu's house to kill Igbos would now turn around and become "mercy agents". His argument made a lot of sense. For one, the timing of the vaccination was wrong because of the disturbances and agitations in the south east. Second, getting soldiers to go with health workers looked suspicious. If the government was concerned about the security of the health workers, it was the job of the police to go with them not soldiers. Also, before embarking on the health tour, a widespread public campaign should have been embarked on for several months in the media, churches and everywhere to sensitize people.

Having said all that, it was unbelievable the effect the WhatsApp message had on citizens of the south east. Just a day after I saw the message, all hell broke lose in the south east! Several pictures were forwarded on the same WhatsApp of parents rushing to their children's schools to take them home so they would not "be injected with the disease-laden vaccination". There was a particular picture of a woman who was climbing a very high school yard perimeter fence in the south east to go and take away her child before the health workers could get to the school. There were pictures of children running away from their schools to avoid being vaccinated. Also, there were videos of parents arguing with school officials to open school gates so they would take their children home. Some parents kept their children away from schools for several days while this lasted. As a result of this, schools in the east were disrupted and many of the children did not get the vaccination they should. Here in the United States, at various stages, children get vaccination, as a must, for Mumps, Measles and Rubella, Tetanus and more. This is for the benefit of the child and that was how several childhood diseases were eradicated. Now, it is unclear how many eventually got the vaccination but a mere WhatsApp message, which someone must have composed in the safety of their house and sent out, spread like wild fire and caused panic that was tantamount to shouting "fire" in a theater. Many must have been injured as they scampered to their children's schools to get them. Once again, the person that forwarded the message to me meant no harm. In fact, he believed that he was doing the public good by forwarding a message he received from someone else but if he had paused for a moment to think about this, may be he would not have forwarded the message and the chain of misinformation would have been broken.

Now, social media misinformation comes in very many forms. The other day, I received a WhatsApp message from a trusted friend. It said CNN was going to broadcast the story of Asaba Massacre. I was excited that finally, the world would get to hear about the unconscionable act that took place in Nigeria 50 years ago. In my excitement, I broke my cardinal rule of never forwarding information I did not verify or authenticate. I did not doublecheck the information nor think deep before forwarding it to all my contacts. It said it would be broadcast on Fareed Zakaria at 3:00PM and 8:00PM. Fareed Zakaria's show comes on here at 1:00PM and that should have been a giveaway to me but in my excitement, I failed to double check. I had already sent out the information when it hit me to double check. I went on and checked the lineup and there was no such program. I had to send out immediate apology to all to say I failed to double-check and the message may be inaccurate. I later watched the Fareed Zakariah show and lo and behold, there was no mention of Asaba Massacre for all the one hour the show aired. I learned a lesson too. That was when I decided to pen this article.

I could go on and on about the social media messages or "information" that I get on a daily basis, but I am sure that the reader has gotten the picture. The reader must not misunderstand my message, social media, including Facebook, Tweeter and others are great. They empower everyone to get out their messages unfiltered. Where someone would have depended on the media at very exorbitant costs to get their information out, they can now do it basically free of charge without censorship. But with that freedom comes responsibility on all users. To avoid spreading "information" that could trigger mass panic, cause injuries or death as well as information that could be injurious to the health of the undiscerning or cast doubt and aspersion on people's faith, all users and consumers of social media information have a duty. It is the duty of due care in your social media dealings; the duty to watch what you forward or retweet or put on Facebook; the duty not to forward information you cannot readily verify its author or authenticate. Before you forward any information, read all of it and be sure you fully understand it, can verify it and agree with it. If you forward information just based on the caption, be aware that some captions are deceptive. You may be forwarding information that contains vile and immoral themes and not know it. When you forward such information to your friends and family, they may even start questioning your sanity and intellect without telling you.

I have a simple philosophy: I only forward funny jokes and funny videos and only forward them when I am certain and fully convinced that there is no doubtful connotation or undertone. One more thing, some people forward some WhatsApp messages that do not even state the author or where it is coming from. When you forward such messages, sometimes people mistake it as coming from you. If therefore there is something wrong with that message, the person you forwarded it to will think you wrote it. The bottom line is - Be wise. Read in between the line before you forward. Use your God-given sense of judgement to determine if it makes sense because the person reading your forwarded message could use what you forward to judge you.