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Tech SAVVY: 'War of the Worlds' hits BlackBerry

Published:Saturday | April 24, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Paul-André Walker, Rural Editor

In 1938, a radio broadcast announced that Martians had landed. It wasn't true, but the widespread panic it started was phenomenal.

That was how the world was introduced to H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds.

Today, we are far better at communicating, and the radio isn't the only way to get through to millions.

Here in Jamaica, the latest fad, the latest method of mass communication, is the smartphone - BlackBerrys in particular.

On every BlackBerry is a little piece of software genius called BlackBerry Messenger. Through that, persons type and keep in touch with friends all across the world.

BlackBerry Messenger, in recent times, has become a great way for Jamaicans to play their part in the fight against crime.

So if a girl goes missing, you broadcast it and hopefully help with her recovery. We have begun simulating the neigbourhood watch on a much broader scale.

That has been corrupted.

Now, there is an influx of broadcasts designed to create hysteria for the pleasure of a few.

Can you imagine getting a message on your BlackBerry that a car with a particular licence plate had been stolen, only to realise it's your car and it's still in the parking lot? What happens when somebody else recognises it on the road and alerts the police? Does somebody respond with a lol?

Just two weeks ago, I received a message saying the providers of BlackBerry Messenger were having a problem and needed users to send the message they had just received to everybody in their contact list.

This could not be true.

I forwarded it, as the message suggested, to see what would happen.

My phone went insane! I spent the next hour responding to people.

"Don't send this to anybody else. They'll think you're stupid," was the response of my concerned sister.

"Is this real?" read another response.

"Really? Aren't you a journalist?" was another of the disparaging comments I received from another friend.

In fact, after an hour, I had at least 40 such comments in my messenger inbox. People were angry, and this was because they have, for a long time, grown tired of being bombarded with messages which said things that weren't true.

The noble idea of broadening the neighbourhood watch is failing.

From the mini-survey I did, comprising 101 contacts, only five persons thought it prudent to pass on the information and a whopping 35 dismissed it, first, because it was broadcast rather than sent to them personally.

So what are the consequences of sending messages that aren't true?

My survey suggests there are two.

One, of course, as was the case with my experiment, is that people won't believe anything anymore and the usefulness of the communication will be lost.

Two: People will believe it and respond in ways that could be quite dangerous.