A fleeting look at most family and friends group chats on WhatsApp is enough to tell you that every day is April Fool's Day here in India. You'll catch a long message that you have to scroll for minutes to get to the bottom of, and it quintessentially contains these few elements – those punctuation marks no one ever uses, to form some sort of a design, interspersed with series of boxes representing phrases in other languages that your phone does not read, maybe accompanying a video depicting a complicated operation of five packets worth of undisgested “noodles” being extracted whole from someone's stomach, a misplaced 'JAI HIND!'
And finally, a cringe-worthy call to action:
“1 lyk = 1 respect”
Everybody religiously complies, too. A series of those 'praying hand' emojis follow, with a few stray clapping hands, and you wonder, are you the only sane one in the family, whose instinct was to hit them with the facepalm smiley instead?
You can do more than facepalm at these shams. You can become the 'Social Media Hoax Slayer', like Pankaj Jain – the hero we do not deserve, but the one we need.
Pankaj Jain, a 39-year-old from Mumbai, calls himself a mostly rational, logical, open-minded person who doubles up as a cyber detective, and “whose religion boils down to being human and Indian.”
“Not being an extremist, and not being biased towards any religion, caste, people, political party expands my understanding of things,” he says, adding, “and fortunately, I'm blessed with the sixth sense, that is, the "common sense," which is on the verge of extinction in country, thanks to people who forward or share stupid messages which defy science and common sense – like believing in a Photoshopped image of god in the clouds,” he explains.
The computer engineer by education has been running his own business for the past 16 years, and moonlights as the vigilante we need. His Hoax Slaying journey started since the beginning of WhatsApp – which further fanned the circulation of those blatantly phoney messages and forwards that previously only lurked around one's Hotmail inboxes. “Initially, I would give senders solid proof about how their message is incorrect, but then I felt, the entire country is going through his phase. People get highly influenced by such fake messages, which basically alter their understanding, polarise them, make them biased. In fact, many websites and pages make money out of fooling people,” he explains.
As the magnanimity and scale of this problem hit him, he decided to take on it on its home turf – the web! He started Facebook and Twitter pages under the name SMHoaxSlayer in August 2015.
He keeps the site running as pure social work, pumping both, his money, effort, and invaluable time to crusade the cause of common sense. The website has as wide a spectrum of topics as the hoaxes do – ranging from religion, to politics, scams, nationalism, medicine, etc. It's also divided category wise, namely, 'fake,' 'religion,' 'politics,' 'government', etc. The search option on top is also intuitive, and one can search for articles on the site by punching in keywords, like 'Frooti, mobile, etc.'
Slaying about three to four hoaxes a day, Pankaj sets aside some time every night to search for shams doing the rounds, and drafts stories accordingly. It has, however, become a way of life for him over the years, and he keeps an eye out at all times for false alarms – for instance photoshopped, morphed, edited images, which are often used to defame some celebrity or politician or religious guru – for which, he performs a background check, tracks down the original as well as the origins of the fake one, and uploads an article presenting all the facts he gathers.
He's also on the lookout for decade old news, happenings, government policies, etc., which resurface and ruffle feathers as people circulate them widely thinking it is latest news. In such cases, he simply finds the original articles and posts clarifications. “So many people also forward disturbing photos, videos of violence (either very old, or from other countries) claiming that they're fresh, from some Indian state or city, and say that 'media will not show, only patriots should share it. People usually fall for such sugarcoated "patriotic" challenges and forward them resulting in communal hatred which may result in riots,” he says.
There have been more than a few cases like this, where deliberately defamatory content is circulated to incite public ire. Recently, the photo of a dead soldier went viral – except, the message claimed that the body was that of Tejbahadur Yadav – who was the same soldier in the news last month, because of his selfie video complaining about the poor quality of food in the army. “After some digging, I found that image to have been tweeted 10 days back along with few other soldiers killed in an encounter with Naxalites in Chhattisgarh, and his wife even went on record to say he is alive, in an Outlook article,” he narrates.
And another time, an image went viral claiming that a BBC survey ranked the Congress as the fourth most corrupt party in the world. Pankaj simply clicked the link of the source and found that it read 'bbcnewspoint.com,' which is an entirely different entity, and their site was filled with half-assed news articles that all seemed spurious.
“When I receive a query or stumble upon some such stuff – my first tool is common sense and knowledge. If I conclude it to be doubtful, I do a search on the internet. I look for credibility if it was in some mainstream media or not. I find out when it was posted, the timeline of Facebook and Twitter and all other platform can not be changed. It doesn't matter if the poster is credible or not, the time stamp matters,” he reveals.
He is a single-man-army, but has had well-wishers come forth to help him with designing the website, and few illustrations for some of his articles. He has created a bank of 1,300 debunked myths and rumours over the span of two years.
His army of knights on Facebook is growing swiftly, and has been getting around 300 likes per day, with a total of nearly 34k likes. On Twitter too, within last two months, the follower count has grown by 2,000. The website currently has around 2,000-3,000 visits everyday. Since the website has shown promise and garnered significant eyeballs, Pankaj plans to monetise it in the near future. “I plan on applying to Google AdSense or other such advertising platforms that puts banners on our website, and pays us per view or per click. That might help me in managing the site well and to promote it,” he says.
His number of followers on Twitter increased drastically, when Musician Vishal Dadlani and Journalist Shekhar Gupta gave him a shout-out on Twitter. He has also been widely covered by news organisations.
“The biggest challenges I may say is to debunk lies of religion or politics. Given the recent incidents, attacks on journalists, etc., at such time I fear falling prey to their hatred towards me,” he says, adding, in conclusion, “religious and political extremism have imprisoned people, and don't allow them to be good citizens. Getting them out of shackles is a tough nut to crack but I will keep trying.”
Head on over to his website to celebrate not being a fool on April Fool's Day.