What’s happening to news, that precious information source that has kept the world ticking for ages? News has now turned into a weapon of destruction. They have a new name for it, Fake News, used as a term of endearment. Fake news has grown into a phenomenon of evil in the West and has made a sinister splash or two in India as well. Social media, uncontrolled and uncontrollable, is the breeding ground of malicious news spread for malicious ends. Where are we headed?
It was the Trump-Hillary presidential campaign that highlighted the noxious nature of fake news. At one point devices like Instagram and Facebook carried fake stories saying that Hillary Clinton was involved in a child-trafficking racket. Naturally online reactions were fierce, some threatening to kill those involved. None of the accusations were true.
The anonymous artistes of the internet had other guns to fire at Hillary—that she had secretly helped sell weapons to the ISIS terrorists, that she was involved in the 1999 plane crash that killed John F Kennedy Junior. Donald Trump himself promoted the idea that Barack Obama was not born in America. One fake story against Trump got traction when a private citizen tweeted that he saw paid protestors being sent in buses to demonstrate against Trump. There were no paid protestors.
By comparison, the fake news menace is not in full bloom in India. Or is it that we are not agitated enough because we haven’t yet faced the ruinous consequences of lies masquerading as news? We came pretty close to it, though, when the JNU campus erupted with reverberations of anti-national cry. As it turned out, the video showing student union leaders shouting pro-Pakistan slogans was a doctored video. This fake news was broadcast by a national channel as well.
Naturally, anger welled up against the student leaders. By the time the doctored nature of the video was established, student leaders had already been slapped with sedition charges and some of them manhandled by partisan lawyers.
Some cases of fake news in India were rather comical in nature and obvious offshoots of the political project to project the Prime Minister as a heroic figure. In June last year, reports appeared in India saying that the UNESCO had declared Narendra Modi as the best Prime Minister in the world. Claims of a similar nature followed that the UNESCO declared Jana Gana Mana as the best national anthem in the world and the new 2,000-rupee note as the best currency in the world.
The ludicrous nature of the claims made them counterproductive. More sinister were reports that spread, within hours of the currency demonetisation announcement, that the new 2,000-rupee notes had nano-GPS chips and radioactive ink embedded in them, enabling satellites to track accumulation of the notes anywhere in the world.
A Hindi news channel even showed a video on the high tech nature of the notes. There was a degree of fear across the country because 300 to 400 million Indians are exposed to WhatsApp and other online instrumentalities through which information, especially false information, spreads fast and free.
In advanced countries, there is an awareness of the dangers of this online menace. In Germany, preparing for general election this year, a special government department is being planned to fight fake news. In the UK, parliamentarians are asking for measures that will prevent politics from getting “infected by the contagion”.
Cambridge University scientists are working on the idea of “pre-emptively” exposing readers to small doses of misinformation so as to “provide a cognitive repertoire that helps build up resistance” to real-life fake news, a kind of psychological vaccination.
No such remedial measures are contemplated in India because we seem to be unconcerned about the social, political and moral issues involved. That national channels are willing to broadcast provocative visuals without checking their authenticity is indicative of our easygoing approach to the menace.
Will that approach change only if a catastrophe strikes? Advance signals of possible disasters have already come. News of salt shortage swept across India last November causing panic everywhere. There were fights in front of shops; in Kanpur, police lathicharged people who robbed shops. In 2012, communally-inspired text messages warned of attacks against Northeasterners in Bengaluru during Ramzan. Overnight panic-stricken Northeasterners began an exodus from Bengaluru causing massive labour crisis in the city.
The wise used to say: News may be true, but it is not truth. Today, news that is untrue, is taken as truth—Kaliyuga at its zenith.