I was invited into a mentor’s bedroom a couple of weeks ago. It was as I expected it. There were shelves of books within easy reach of the bed and the writing table.
The old me would have made a beehive for the book shelves and would have emerged with a couple of books that could occupy me for a week or two.
The new me resisted the pull. There was no point. The books I have acquired at the various airports, book launches and through friends who still send me best-sellers are not being consumed fast enough.
So I merely glanced at the shelves before saying to my host who knew of my love for books that ‘I don’t read that much any more’ with a tinge of regret. For many years, reading was my source of entertainment and relaxation. It was also my escape; my world.
That world now seems a distant one. The current world is dominated by TV and the social media. For years, I struggled towards a balance. I would read during the day and watch TV or go through the internet during the night. My aged, dimming eyes made the decision easier since it is easier to read hard copy in daylight. Then came the social media. At the risk of being called square, I had no problem in resisting this ‘new media.’ Till today, I don’t twit, don’t do Facebook or Instagram. I am after all, not a celebrity.
But I didn’t reckon with WhatsApp which crept into my life like a thief in the night. I had used Blackberry messenger before and thought WhatsApp would be a cheaper, more inclusive way of texting. The downside of that of course is that you are also open to casual acquaintances.
You suddenly find someone whose number you don’t remember sending you a good morning video, a prayerful video or a message saying you have been chosen as one of his friends for life. I can only imagine how young women cope with different kinds of unsolicited advances from people they barely know. You also find yourself in chat groups that nobody took your permission to join. I have been included in a group called, ‘The Inner Circle’ and the only person I know, even then tangentially, is the administrator.
How I became part of their inner circle beats me. It would have more manageable if the chat groups stuck to the reason they were set up. Most don’t. The result is that the same videos and messages circulate through the groups. Many as often as 15, 20 times. You take your eyes off your WhatsApp for two hours and you could have 300 messages or more.
We complain about the sheer volume of posts yet we do nothing to alleviate the problem and everything to compound it by forwarding posts without checking whether someone had earlier posted them to the group. As it is, nobody I know reads every message or video from in his box. Which means anybody who sends an urgent or important message through WhatsApp these days will be taking a gamble. So, an important function of WhatsApp has been lost through abuse.
Don’t get me wrong. WhatsApp has many uses and I have learnt a lot of fascinating stuff through it. I have been amused, provoked into introspection and enlightened. I have had information, some of them valuable, brought to my door step. I have been enriched by the lifestyles, cultures and ethics of people in far flung places. I have written a couple of columns based on materials gleaned from the chat groups. But like many powerful instruments, WhatsApp’s strengths can easily be abused to become weaknesses. WhatsApp’s main strength is in its free flow of information.
But an unfettered flow of information can be dangerous. As a journalist, I have an instinctive feel for libel that is borne of years of handling scripts. I have seen highly libellous and damaging stuff that would not have passed through main stream media without dire consequences. Worse, I have seen inflammatory articles that have been attributed to known personalities who are in no way connected with the articles just to make them credible.
I have seen fake news, doctored photographs and stories. It would not have mattered much if these doctored photographs were harmless fun. But many were deliberately doctored to inflame passion and cause division. Of course, we have all seen hate and divisive speeches of tribal, racial and religious colouration.
On the moral front, I have seen more sexually explicit and pornographic videos than I have ever seen in my entire life. In the past, you needed to make an effort to see porn. You either went to certain clubs or you visited certain sites on the net. Now, it is sent to you with or without your approval. With WhatsApp, sex is on tap as it were. I’d hate to go through the phones of young persons in their 30s or 40s. So, while it is true that WhatsApp has extended the frontiers of knowledge, it has also extended the frontiers of immorality.
The problem with constant exposure to these videos and messages is that the more we are exposed, the more we become inured to them. It is what a respected practitioner calls the law of continuous exposure. This works on our psyche in stages. First, we are repulsed by the unwholesome videos and messages.
Then we move to the stage of tolerance. Then to the stage of passive or active acceptance. Finally, to the stage of owning them and propagating them. The end result is the lowering of values in the entire spectrum of the society. A simple acid test is to ask yourself if the things you permit your teenage child could have been permitted by your father.
I am all for free flow of information. But there must be filters and some measures of accountability. Administrators of various groups should take greater responsibility for what appears in groups they help set up in the way editors take responsibility for their publications.
A simple, Rotarian test of truth, fairness, goodwill and benefit should suffice as guiding principles. It should not be so easy to propagate falsehood and hate. Or immorality. I also believe the sheer volume of posts should be controlled before we collapse under their weight and they render many of us unproductive in other fields. A simple token of 5 naira charge per posting would in my view, reduce the indiscriminate touch of the ‘send’ button.
Yet, there is so much good in WhatsApp that we should be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water. But at this stage of our development, the nation can’t afford to spend this much time on WhatsApp swallowing whatever is on offer without any filter.