WhatsApp Panic: How Social Media Frenzy Ignited Leopard Rumors and Local Theories
It all started with WhatsApp. In case you don’t know what WhatsApp is, it’s a free cellphone app that serves as your lifeline to the people you love. But the best thing about it is that it’s a free university where you can learn about anything. And, of course, it’s the best free source of facts and news.
At least, that’s what my neighbour Mahadeva tells me. Whenever we meet, he flashes his smartphone — he gets a new one every six months — in my face and tells me how WhatsApp keeps him posted on all topics, and I listen to him in silence.
Mahadeva and I belong to a WhatsApp group of residents in this area. Members differ by way of occupations, income group, first language, and so on: There’s little common ground among us. Messages other than greetings on festivals tend to sporadic, and I was surprised one night in early November to find five new messages all together, all forwards, from one source.
The first three were blurry photographs, all taken after dark in artificial light, of a big spotted cat lurking in greenery, then crossing a narrow road bordered by vegetation and trees, and the third of it looking backwards at the camera as it strolled towards a thicket. The fourth message was a recorded voice message in Kannada, about a leopard in the neighbourhood — the voice named three distinct areas including ours — telling people to take particular care of children and pet dogs. The last message was a simple one, in English, telling people to watch out, especially after dark.
Mahadeva called soon after to discuss the leopard, and after that we decided to keep a close watch on the dogs, our own and the strays that scavenge off garbage in the area. Dogs can smell a dangerous cat from far away — farther away than I can, certainly — and I thought that they’d signal the approach of a dangerous animal much before I became aware of it.
Over the next couple of days, though, my wife Prita noticed nothing out of the ordinary in the area except perhaps for increased police patrols, which she wasn’t sure about because she had no idea how often police cars came by. She did notice, though, the complete absence of vehicles or people from the department of forests, the agency responsible for the safe return of wildlife to the wild.
Most of all, though, she noticed the silence from the municipality. Their custom, when there’s an announcement to be made, is to use the modern equivalent of the town crier: A truck with a loudspeaker mounted on top, repeating the announcement loudly enough to be heard half a mile away. No announcements.
The panic subsided soon, and we resumed our evening walks to the beach with our two dogs. There we bumped into Mahadeva, and then a neighbour who’s hard of hearing. After three tries during which we alerted everyone within a range of fifty metres about the subject of our conversation, we got her to understand that we were talking about the leopard. “What leopard?” she asked loudly, in the manner of deaf people who refuse to admit their deafness. “There’s no leopard!”
We were soon surrounded by people trying to pay no attention to our conversation, but instead of explaining what she meant, she pulled her own cellphone out of a pocket and showed us a series of messages on another WhatsApp group that we didn’t know about, a group that met every Saturday afternoon for two hours of rummy. “Ignore the leopard,” said the first message she showed us.
“It’s a fake.” She pointed at the message. “See?”
The onlookers, who had drawn closer, joined in the conversation. “Why is it fake?” asked a lad in a blue T-shirt.
“Leopards hunt in the dark,” said an old man with a walking stick. “Drug dealers are spreading these rumours about the leopard. They want ordinary people off the streets at night during the Diwali vacation. Big business. They’ve already paid off the police, and if everyone stays home after dark, they can operate freely... Besides, why do you think you haven’t seen any forest department staff looking for the animals?”
“I don’t think so,” said the boy in blue. “None of us is going to interfere with a drug dealer and risk getting knifed. It must be the sand mining mafia, stocking up during the holidays.”
“Can’t be,” said a plump middle-aged man as he wiped the sweat off his forehead. “There’s no large-scale government construction work going on. Contractors are refusing to work because they haven’t been paid.”
By this time some twenty-odd people had assembled to discuss the leopard and drug dealers and sand miners. A distinguished looking man said, “All these messages must be fake,” he said. “It’s a prank. Someone’s got photos of a leopard in a wooded area in Bangalore or Mumbai and posted them on the group for a bit of fun.”
I thought he had a point there, but Mahadeva spoke up. “This is too serious for a prank,” he said vehemently, as if defying anyone to contradict him. “There are lives at stake.”
“Yes,” said a scruffy-looking man who had been listening intently throughout. “It’s too dangerous. It can’t be a prank.”
“Hold on,” said the distinguished-looking man. “Let’s be reasonable.”
“You be reasonable,” said Mahadeva, poking him in the chest with a finger. “We’re talking of children’s lives here!”
Onlookers had begun to take sides. Tempers and voices were rising. We slipped away, dragging the curious and unwilling dogs along, wondering about the power of social media.