The Rise and Rise of Fake News In India
“Suspected child lifters are carrying sedatives, injections, spray, cotton and small towels. They speak Hindi, Bangla and Malyali. If you happen to see any stranger near your house immediately inform local police as he could be a member of the child lifting gang,” read a WhatsApp forward.
In May 2017, a circulating Whatsapp message warning against child kidnappers caused widespread panic in Jharkhand, leading to villagers turning violent and resulting in the lynching of seven men.
The spread of fake stories has become a matter of global concern, especially since a US presidential election was characterized by fake news. Post 2016, it became clear that the propaganda, yellow journalism, tabloid journalism and clickbait of yesterday is overshadowed by the fake news of today.
Technology has made life easy, making the world a seamless cross connection of information, with the internet almost rendering life to the ‘collective consciousness’ of humanity. The internet is also a vulnerable space, dangerous at best, much like the collective conscious of humanity.
The truth is, misinformation has existed for as long as information. From the appearance of the Monkey Man in post-millennial Delhi, to communal friction caused by playing fake audio cassettes in colonies, rabble rousers and gossip mongers have long played the Chinese Whispers of misinformation.
What makes the present era of fake news unique is the unpredictability and ungovernableness of information flowing freely across the internet.
There are numerous ways in which fake news circulates in the country, from Twitter trolls and WhatsApp forwards to stand-alone propaganda websites. The content takes various shades. From your phone exploding on you answering an unknown call, to nano GPS chips embedded in the new Rs 2000 note, the scope of fake news segues from the innocuously harmless to the viciously dangerous to plain banal.
Understandably, proliferation of fake news on WhatsApp networks is the highest, the messenger’s end-to-end encryption makes it impossible to trace offenders, giving somewhat of a technical immunity to those spreading unreliable content. India currently generates 200 million monthly users for WhatsApp that runs on most of India’s 300 million smartphones.
Though the nature of fake news in not just political, the nature of right-wing inspired fake news websites unabashedly spreading misinformation on the internet, is.
Sample this: Ministers and spokespersons in the Modi government have time and again used fake images to trumpet the cause of grand India under Narendra Modi. In perhaps the biggest irony-laden gaffe, Nupur Sharma, BJP Spokesperson, used an image from the Gujarat riots to raise a call for protest against the Basirhat killing. Another BJP member from Haryana had earlier used a fake image from a Bhojpuri film in the urgency to call people to protest against Mamta Banerjee’s government. On July 8, a little over 250 individuals had gathered at Jantar Mantar, Delhi to protest this call.
In June 2017, the Home Ministry embarrassed the government with a photo captioned in its annual report as “floodlighting along the border” that turned out to be from the Spain-Morocco border.
In 2015, the Press Information Bureau tweeted a photoshopped image of Modi visiting flood-hit areas of Chennai. Twitter, of course, had a field day.
From time to time, BJP politicians like Meenakshi Lekhi, Nirmala Sitharaman and Sambit Patra have also fallen for fake news shared by right-wing propaganda machinery.
Though, to say that only the BJP or its supporters have used fake news as a tool to swing votes and influence the social fabric will be erroneous. Just before the Punjab elections, an over-confident AAP did not shy from using social media to propagate bits of fake information.
The crucial difference though, is the polarizing and blatantly communal nature of fake news spread by the right. While different political parties have served lopsided information to influence the swing of votes and control narrative, the larger vicious impact of unverified communal content spread by right wing propagandists on the internet, is adding fuel to the already fired up landscape from north to south.
However, it would be wrong to assess this phenomenon in a singular, stand-alone light. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological father of the BJP and the genesis of right-wing propaganda in India, has been involved in publishing ideological magazines and newspapers for a long time. From their English mouthpiece ‘Organizer’ that started publishing in 1947, to the Hindi face,’ Panchjanya’ (1948), the Sangh’s tryst with influencing society at the deepest level and building a counter-narrative goes back a long way.
Right before the monumental 2014 elections, the stage of propaganda shifted to the World Wide Web, just as the Sangh and the party woke up to an unprecedented vocal presence of supporters on the internet. Christened as ‘bhakts’, these supporters took the form of individual trolls, Whatsapp group admins and later, ran collective organized efforts in the form of websites like Niti Central. The government has, since then, honoured and honed these individuals in a variety of ways. In 2015, as they launched ‘Digital India’, the internet-friendly Modi Government smelt advantage in patronizing 150 of these individuals -- some of whom are loud, abusive trolls – in an official ceremony where the PM openly met with and advised these social media “influencers”.
The propaganda though, is now mainstreamed. At this time, the party (BJP) is a movement (Hindutva) and the mass follower, knowingly or unknowingly, is rubbing shoulders with the party worker in spreading propaganda.
But to those who are not ideologically predisposed to do so, what is the lure of fake news? The answer is twofold. There is big money to be made from sites that generate enough curious clicks and host web advertising, leading to huge financial rewards. This holds true for individuals and groups running right wing websites and serial fake news offenders like Hindutva.com, Postcard News and Dainik Bharat, among many others. The right wing propaganda website Hindutva.com generates more traffic than Siddharth Vardarajan’s thewire.in, claims an Alt News expose.
The other reason is inspirational, after Narendra Modi’s ascension to the Delhi seat, a current of nationalistic pride and religious majoritarianism is mainstreaming itself. Most of the unverified content on WhatsApp is shared and run by “inspired” individuals who have taken up a good-samaritan cause for the “betterment of society”.
The concept of ‘confirmation bias’ has been discussed widely in post-truth America. The present political context in India merits its own scrutiny of the confirmation bias syndrome. Fake news is generated on right wing propaganda websites, profilerated through Whatsapp and given a screeching confirmation through trolls and right wing supporters, even Ministers of the Modi government on Twitter and Facebook, thus forming a dense echo chamber in the free internet space. More often than once, fake news has been picked up by the mainstream media. Giants of mainstream media, like Times Now , Republic TV and Zee News have spread fake news, thus bridging the gap between biased reporting and complete fabrication of news.
When this noise spills out into the world, the ramifications are exceedingly painful. Videos of the May 18 mob attacks spread across social media that lead to crowds of up to 500 attacking passersby. It must be noted that not a single case of child abduction was reported in that part of Jharkhand. “The mobs have intentionally killed these men,” Animesh Naithany, Jharkhand deputy superintendent of police, told the New York Times.
As every narrative births counter-narrative, the emergence of fake-news watchers and debunkers in India in the form of Alt News, SM Hoax Slayer and other is providing the necessary antidote in the system.
In a series of articles, we will offer an in-depth exploration of the fake news machinery in India – dissecting it to pieces, exploring narratives from the left, right and centre. Watch this space for our following interviews and articles.