How miscommunication has changed the world

We’ve all played the game “Telephone” when we were young. Some call it Chinese Whispers. The game involves participants standing or sitting in a circle and a message being whispered by someone into the first player’s ears. They have to then whisper the same message into the next person’s ears and so on until the message reaches the end of the circle. Most likely, the message is completely distorted by the time it reaches the end. Take a look at this video to see some hilarious results when the same game is played but this time with an action rather than a verbal message.

There are several similarities in the real world when much more important messages get transmitted between people. The longer the chain, the more distorted the message becomes. In the above video, the distortions that come in are due to one of the following reasons:

- A player misunderstood the message
- A player intentionally transmitted a wrong message

Now take an event in the real world. In the age of social media and the culture of tweeting and retweeting, the message that gets transmitted, often in seconds, can cause the event to be distorted beyond recognition much like the distortion seen in the video above. The distortions again could be due to genuine misunderstanding or crooked intentions. 

In a politically charged atmosphere like we are witnessing these days, this can have enormous ramifications.

One aspect of human nature causes this distortion of messages to happen more rapidly - the propensity and desire to believe something dramatic without subjecting it to rational analysis.

When we extend this entire analogy further, we can also understand some other things.

Several centuries ago, when there was no internet and Twitter or Facebook, communication happened much more slowly. However, human beings were still the same. So while these distortions happened, they happened at a much less rapid pace. The level of distortion that happens today with a tweet and several hundred retweets in a matter of a few minutes, took a few decades. Nevertheless, distortions happened and the effects were no less significant. It’s just that since they took so much time, not many people took notice. By the time some people realised what had happened, the distortions became widely believed to be the truth.

Look at religion. Several things about religions probably got distorted because of this reason. The religious thinkers that founded several of the widely followed religions started getting elevated to supernatural beings with magical powers. Seemingly normal events started acquiring divine undertones. It is all most likely to be the effects of the equivalent of a million ‘retweets’, slowly over time!

So before retweeting or even indulging in good old communication, we must make sure we are not distorting the message - by mistake or intentionally. The consequences can be beyond what we can ever imagine.