by Chi Lan
Durians plus Coke equals death? That shocking claim went rampant on the newsfeeds of Facebook, the most popular social network in Viet Nam, last weekend. The story was allegedly about a Chinese tourist who died after eating the fruit and washing it down with the American beverage.
The warning went as far as claiming that Thai health authorities had recommended that durian lovers not drink Coke. It said the delicious but strong smelling tropical fruit had some mysterious chemistry combination that, when combined with Coke, produced a poison as strong as cobra venom.
Many laughed at the story as total nonsense, others said it was interesting that durians had another way to kill besides falling on people's heads - as sometimes happens! But, sadly, many others actually believed the story and worried about it.
Pham Quang Huy, an active Facebook user posted the warning message seeking any confirmation from his contacts. "I am kind of worried about whether the story was true. I thought posting it on Facebook would attract the attention and someone can verify it for me," Huy said.
The story receive heaps of "likes" and was shared by dozens of subscribers, yet no one could answer his question. The likes and shares kept rolling in without anyone discovering if the story was true or not.
This kind of health scare is not uncommon on Vietnamese Facebook. Two years ago, the network's newsfeeds were continuously filled with stories about a hu tieu (a specialty Southern noodle dish) vendor who boiled rats to make his noodle broth. The vendor was never identified, but many soup eaters stayed away from all hu tieu vendors just to be safe.
It was hard to blame customers even if their negative thoughts directly affected the business of all hu tieu vendors across the country, who are mostly poor people struggling to make ends meet.
Social network users are also real people. They can include attentive mothers caring for the health of her family, students who want to check out safe eating places - or devoted girls who feel for everyone. They believe they are helping protect their loved ones and society in general. Then, of course, there are the ratbags, the people who just love scaring people for the fun of it.
But the efforts of positive bloggers last year saved hundreds of farmers in two central provinces of Quang Ngai and Quang Nam from going broke after a series of flash floods in the region. Facebook users kept called on their families, friends and colleagues for weeks to join hands purchasing tonnes of watermelons slightly damaged during the inundation.
The campaign changed many people's minds about how the social network can not only be a playground, but a bridge to unite its users to support the local community. Such a demonstration of power by an online community was unprecedented in Viet Nam. It shows that the internet can be used to open a door for farmers suffering from a crisis, or to ignorantly kill the livelihoods of poor hu tieu vendors.
That power also pressured authorities to suspend a massive, urban, tree felling campaign - and drove a schoolgirl to suicide after someone turned her photos into photoshop insults and posted them online.
Social users have the right to freely click "like" for whatever catches their attention, and the right to "share" whatever posts they think are useful or interesting.
"It would be too much to ask social users to verify the information they share on social networks. They are on the network looking for fun stuff, not serious news," said Cao Duong Tam Linh, a senior journalism student in Ha Noi. "News verification is the job of journalists, not Facebook users," she added.
This is true. Social network users are allowed to interact as long as their activities do not break network rules or involve others in criminal acts. Yet I believe that most users do not to see how their opinions can be used to create hurtful consequences.
"I think we should only trust positive news on social networks like Facebook, and treat anything totally negative with caution," said Nguyen Huong Dieu, an advertising student in HCM City. Sit back, and think. — VNS