Sambit Dash

It has all the components that a worst rated movie would have. Mysterious killing of sheep, anecdotes of sighting an alien animal, skirmishes with human beings, circulating videos and photos on social media, officials visiting, ministers commenting, TV debates calling godmen to discuss it, and much more. Niali has had the spotlight right on it, though the light on the ‘mystery’ is elusive. The incident is nothing more than a sad and strange testament to the times we live in, where rumor mongering gets amplified in a radically networked society.

If the Niali incident is observed keenly, there has been a genuine and worrying concern of killing of sheep. Such sheep deaths are an economic burden to the keeper and is bound to cause alarm bells to ring. But what could be a swift closure by forest department officials snowballed into a ‘breaking news’ scenario which made it a talking point across the state.

Firstly, rumor mongering is being fanned by media houses which have over the years mushroomed in the state. An online search will peg the number of sheep killed from somewhere between one hundred to four times the number. Such misreporting is sure to fuel anxiety. The presence of black sheep (with due respect to the departed real sheep) who have a quick gain in such situations only exacerbate the matter.

In the ‘Whatsapp’ age that we live in, fake news propagation is becoming a huge challenge and this incident, though not inherently harmful is an example of such. Morphed images of the mysterious alien animal which killed sheep circulated as quickly as UNESCO awarding best of everything to India does. The vicious cycle of forwards – news desk ensues. That news channels have invited all and sundry including dubious babas to discuss the issue is only fitting to the age of senseless sensationalism that is upon us.

These tendencies are fanned by lack of scientific temper, something that we Indians largely aren’t very great at; joblessness, for lack of doing something meaningful gives one a lot of time for rumor mongering (not always though) and the very human tendency to get excited at anything that poses as a mystery. Such incidents bring to the fore the challenges that administration or polity or society at large might face at the face of fake news propagation. The solutions should be sought collectively.

Niali incident, which even got a very entrepreneurial person to release a music album on sheep killing, might be passed off as funny or at least a huge waste of time and resources which could have otherwise be spent on something meaningful for Odisha. But it reflects the dichotomy of the current times when while there is information overload and easy access to it there also is this inherent chance of spiraling of unnecessary and harmful to mainstay in public discourses.

While pug marks and existing knowledge has pinned wolves to be the culprit of sheep killing, the rumor mill might take a little more time to rest. Caught in the melee are perhaps the hapless villagers who have not been sleeping well since two weeks. These incidents should not be passed off as entirely frivolous for there are deep messages to society and individuals embedded in it, that of to be informed, to be conscious, to be responsible and to have a normally thinking brain. But yes, sometimes these are too much to ask for.