1-7 May 2015 #756

Believe it, or not

Accurate and prompt information was a commodity in short supply in the aftermath of the earthquake
Tsering Dolker Gurung
Tonight will be the sixth night out in the open in a field near our home for my family since the earthquake hit on 25 April. Although our neighbourhood in Ekantakuna did not suffer serious damage, families are refusing to sleep inside because they have heard rumours fanned by some Indian tv channels that a bigger, more disastrous quake will strike any day. Even government officials and police have fanned the panic by repeating this in public. The absurd prediction that a 9 magnitude earthquake would occur at 6PM on Monday was shared widely on social networking sites, sending an already panicked crowd into a state of terror. Then came rumours that the city will soon face a famine, or that the moon had flipped. 

During emergencies nothing matters more than the family’s safety. That will explain why even educated intellectuals were so quick to believe and spread these rumours despite knowing it is impossible for scientists to predict exactly when or where an earthquake will occur. Rational thinking and the use of logic takes a back seat when you are constantly warned of an approaching apocalypse. 

Partly because of the rumours, hundreds of thousands of people thronged Kalanki and Gongabu this week to flee the city. Cashing in on the widespread panic were bus owners and shopkeepers who fleeced customers for everything from water to waiwai. A bus driver paid Rs 500 for a jar of water, which costs only Rs 50 on other days, and he passed on that cost to his passengers who had to pay Rs 2,000 for a ticket to Hetauda that would normally cost Rs 600.

Social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, free messaging apps like Viber helped Nepalis abroad reconnect with families at home as phone lines went dead. My own family reached out to me on wechat, and so did relatives in Tibet, which was also affected badly by  Saturday’s quake.

While these sites proved valuable for worried relatives to check up on the status of their families in Nepal, it also became a place for people to spread propagated news, rumours and to spread panic. 

Most Nepalis still have not understood that most information shared on social media is unfiltered. There is no editor on Facebook or Twitter to check and verify the accuracy and authenticity of each post. The impression among Nepal’s five million or so Facebook users seem to be that the Internet is the most credible medium there is because it is the most modern form of communication.

This is precisely why a person who just shared a post about a five star hotel denying permission for shelter seekers to camp on its lawn will enthusiastically share another one five minutes later refuting it once that goes viral. Thankfully, the social web is also governed by the self-correcting phenomenon of the ‘wiki-effect’ where users with expertise can quickly correct misinformation: which means false rumours on Twitter like that of a tiger escaping from Jawalakhel Zoo will be quickly corrected.

We also saw this week how rumours and gossip thrive when experts, those with authoritative information or the government, stay out of the informationsphere in times of crisis. During the royal massacre in 2001, rumours spread fast and wild because the government was absent. When there was finally an official statement, people did not trust the information because the public had been lied to so often.

An absence of updates by the government fueled speculation and helped spread panic. Only days after the earthquake did Nepal Society for Earthquake Technology (NSET) update its website. The Ministry of Home Affairs busied itself announcing the death toll from each district, but had no information about what relief material was needed and where. How could volunteers contribute, where were the shelters? Ministers did come out on radio, but the reach of FM has now been taken over by the reach of FB. Smartphones were spreading rumours, radio was too slow to counter it.

The lack of information not only delayed rescue and relief where it was needed most, but demoralised eager volunteers, and led to concentration of help in few areas and duplication of relief. In the absence of direction from the government locals took it upon themselves to find out where and what kind of help was needed. 

Bibeksheel Nepali, a youth group, set up a help desk at the airport after reading about rescue workers being stranded there. Another group of young people from Jhamsikhel are helping distribute relief packages to locals at Harsiddhi. Others have gone to Khokana, where there has been no government help. Hundreds of volunteers have been participating at clean-up campaigns of Tundikhel and BICC, which together shelter more than 500 families.

These are all commendable efforts. One can’t help but imagine how much more help would have reached the right people had the information been available more readily. We have help, but not enough of the right kind of information. 

The outside world got its visuals from parachute journalists who descended upon Kathmandu. The images they sent out only showed the ruins of the Darbar Squares and surrounding areas. No one took pictures of the 85 per cent of residences still standing in the capital. The media highlights and magnifies the negative, and in doing so distorts the truth.


Also read:

Thanking the Living Goddess for life, Min Ratna Bajracharya

Langtang is gone”, Sahina Shrestha

Teacher’s tragedy, Cynthia Choo

Small is more useful

The earthquake from above, Kunda Dixit

Monumental loss, Stéphane Huët

Microcosm of a calamity, Cynthia Choo and Sonia Awale

Mapping the aftermath, Ayesha Shakya

Coming out stronger from crisis, Anjana Rajbhandary

A slow start, David Seddon

Rising from the dust, From the Nepali Press

Barpak in ruins, From the Nepali Press

Not-so-big One, From the Nepali Press

Surviving Dharara, From the Nepali Press

Surviving trauma

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