Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will step down on Monday. Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan or Shahbaz Sharif will be elevated as the new Prime Minister as the Supreme Court investigates Panama Papers revelations. Meanwhile, new business and terror linkages have been unearthed of Mr. Sharif with the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, according to sources. At the same time, sources further disclosed that the ever-so-vigilant intelligence agencies of the country have foiled yet another conspiracy to malign the military and the footprints of this latest heinous effort to sully the armed forces lead to the Prime Minister’s office. Given the gravity of the situation, General Raheel Sharif has taken a principled decision to take things under his direct control. Corrupt politicians are planning to escape; many have already booked their flights to Dubai and London, sources further revealed.

Of course, none of this is true. These sensational claims and announcements – or many to a similar effect – come through the latest trend of mysterious Whatsapp messages, which invariably start or end with “Forwarded, as received.”

And, these types of messages go viral within minutes of their origin as users comply with the “forwarded, as received” chain. They find their way to Whatsapp groups of journalists and individual users before further proliferation to Facebook. Nuggets are then posted on Twitter; each picked up to satisfy the appetite of users of these social networks.

While perpetuating these unsubstantiated rumours and claims, the often politically motivated mobile phone users do not bother to even remotely question or verify the contents. In an almost zombie like submission, they press the ‘send’ button as they pass on these messages to people in their social and professional circles.

Subsequently, they become an unwitting tool in the hands of those who generate such messages. The propagandists play on the people’s need to lend a more devoted ear to what they want to hear. They also exploit the innate vulnerability and propensity of people to believe in conspiracy theories and fantastical claims. More importantly, they perpetuate lies and reinforce half-truths. The worrying aspect is the fact that almost everyone is guilty of propagating and forwarding these messages. Almost everyone – college students, active on social networking sites to defend their political activism, to bureaucrats, politicians and military officials – happily partakes in rumour mongering. After all, everyone loves a delicious conspiracy.

In recent months, as the country has witnessed political and diplomatic instability, these messages have taken a new form and intensity. Their frequency has also multiplied. They are being used to not only spread fake news but also aim at character assassination and moulding of the public opinion in particular narrative jackets. The dubious sources hide behind anonymity and twist and distort. These sources cannot be equated with sources quoted in most of the newspaper articles. While readers are entitled to transparency, some stories, due to their sensitivity, have to have anonymous sources. But good journalism demands that while carrying news stories based on “sources”, proper editorial scrutiny is carried out. All credible newspapers observe a standard practice: editors are aware of the identities of the sources quoted in the news articles.

This is not the case with news spread on social networking sites and the sort of Whatsapp messages in question. The sources in such instances are either the writers of those messages themselves or their superiors who want the message (read ‘disinformation’) to spread in the public realm.

Next time you receive a “forwarded, as received” message that predicts the heavens falling and the earth tearing apart within a few minutes of receiving that warning, it might be useful to take a step back and not press the ‘send’ button. Break the chain. Let the heavens fall.