Home >Opinion >Columns >Has social media fuelled religious paranoia?

As soon as the flight from Delhi to Ranchi took off, I noticed that two youngsters sitting on the opposite ends of my row were silently gesturing to each other. Doubts began creeping into my mind. Were they using some secret language to communicate? If they were travelling together, they should ideally be seated next to each other: not on extreme ends of a row of seats. Could it be that they had other accomplices seated behind us and they were, through the use of gestures, trying to carry out a conspiracy? Discomfiture was writ large on the faces of others seated near them. 

Oblivious to all this, the youngsters kept on raising and lowering the window shades and fidgeting in their seats. They would occasionally straighten out the tray table only to push it back. All of them were wearing Pathani suits and sported stubbles. If we were on a flight in a Western country, we might have been coerced into making an emergency landing. Large-scale terror attacks and massacres have made the people in Europe and the US paranoid. Thankfully, India is yet to reach this stage of paranoia. 

I had forgotten about this experience which took place a few months ago, but the carnage in Las Vegas has prised out this memory from the dark recesses of my mind. 

The manner in which 64-year-old Stephen Paddock killed 59 people listening to music in Las Vegas is frightening. The Islamic State (ISIS) was quick to claim responsibility for carrying out the attack, but American authorities have denied it.

You may recall that initially, the responsibility for the Boston bombing wasn’t similarly acknowledged because the arrogance of the American government cannot easily accept that their entire state apparatus has proved to be a failure. People in the US are arguing that easy availability of firearms in this superpower nation is wreaking havoc on its citizens. That Americans should consider firearm regulation. They themselves provide an answer to the question about how one man could carry out such a big massacre, with an example.

A crazed murderer similarly gunned down 77 people in Oslo on 22 July 2011. Here, you should keep one thing in mind. Had the mass murderer been a Muslim, social media warriors wouldn’t have had to work hard to spin conspiracy theories. A few people have begun to view terrorism through the prism of religion. This tendency points to the bigger danger of social conflict. 

Whichever way the reality of Vegas turns out, the fact is that the path to social harmony is fraught with dangers these days. We are living with wolves among us, it appears. Whether in the name of religion or owing to individual frustrations, they are bent upon taking people’s lives. Intelligence agencies term people associated with terrorist groups as lone wolves. But how do you classify mass murderers such as Paddock? 

These attacks have set the cat among the pigeons in the West. Western superpowers are in a state of shock. They are the ones who taught people how to lead comfortable lives after the Industrial Revolution. Then why is the West being targeted, they wonder. They don’t know what to do. 

Distressed governments in Europe and the US are cutting back on essential items and raising the budgets for national defence. This is freezing the funds meant for social welfare schemes, which can lead to other complications. Already battling with problems of migration, separatism, economic inequality, social contradictions and numerous other tensions, these bloody massacres have shaken Western society to the core and made them jittery. Somebody or the other on a train, bus or airplane raises an alarm looking at a Sikh or an Arab. Pilots are forced to make emergency landings even as trains and buses are stopped for security checks. 

Fanning the fires of anxiety and distrust, the social media has emerged as a dangerous device. Purveyors of terror such as the ISIS and Al-Qaeda have capitalized on it in a big way. This terrible pattern was repeated in Las Vegas. Even as the bloodbath continued, social media were abuzz with rumours. The murderer was identified wrongly and baseless stories spread. Even Google search inadvertently played a part in this. This is the flip side of excessive use of technology. 

In August 2017, when 50 Nobel Prize winners were asked during a survey what would lead to the end of Earth, one of the answers was Facebook. In social media, have we given birth to a demon that has the power to burn everything down?

Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan. His Twitter handle is @shekharkahin.

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