Fake news is a grave menace that is increasing fast and impacting society at large adversely. What drives perpetrators to spread fake news? Here is an in-depth analysis.
08 December 2021 – Over one lakh people shared a clipping of a Mi-17 helicopter bursting into flames as that carrying our CDS General Bipin Rawat. Verification checks found it is a video from February 2020 about a Syrian Air Force helicopter shot down by the Turkish forces near the town of Al-Nayrab!
07 December 2021 – A BJP supporter published exaggerated data about the performance of the UP government, assigning numbers to CMIE, RBI and the World Bank, which on checking have been found to be deliberately concocted. Leading newspapers have also been carrying advertorials by the UP government carrying concocted data and unverified facts and photos like the use of a flyover in Kolkata as one built by the government!
07 December 2021 – Many people including BJP MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar shared a video supposedly from Nagaland showing armed forces being intimidated by locals with machetes, stating “Soldiers don’t fire unless attacked upon, even if they warn first.” Quickly, the attempt to lionise the act of Assam Rifles as well as vilify the Nagas had begun. Some army officers also wrote elaborate messages accompanying the video. Verification of the video showed it has been hijacked all the way from Nicaragua of 2018 vintage on NoticiasCaracol TV!
07 December 2021 – On the very same day, a propaganda platform called Kreately shared the news item of a Muslim boy attacking a Hindu girl in the town of Alipurduar in West Bengal. The social media machinery went on overdrive to establish one more case of “love jihad” to justify their crusade against the same. A reference check by Alt News with the SHO there revealed that it was a deliberate communal angle as both the individuals were from the same community!
02 December 2021 – As the Omicron variant was making news across all news and social media channels, many people shared the poster of a film called “The Omicron Variant” supposedly released in 1963. Even film director Ram Gopal Varma shared the same. The IMDb shows that there was a movie called “Omicron” in 1963 and nothing called “The Omicron Variant”. Internet checks showed someone called ‘Miller’ concocting this poster drawing inspiration from the film “Cyborg 2087”.
02 December 2021 – Two videos doing the rounds were of a lady being abducted and a teenager dying from birthday bumps being given by his friends. Most on social media took both to be real incidents. Fact checks showed that both were ‘awareness’ videos created to make educate people!
26 November 2021 – The social media spinmeisters became very creative on the day the Prime Minister laid the foundation stone of the international airport proposed at Jewar in UP. Both the government handles as well as leading media houses published pictures of what the airport would look like, forgetting that simple internet checks would reveal that the pics were of the Incheon airport in South Korea and the Beijing airport in China!
24 November 2021 – The BBC released a fact-check report that there were 80 fake social media accounts across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter which were taken down when identified by the platforms. These accounts were used to create and amplify a narrative against the farmers protesting the Farm Laws that have now been repealed. The objective was to vilify the farming community as being anti-national and separatist, being instigated by moneyed groups across the border and middlemen!
24 November 2021 – Self-appointed protectors of the Hindu religion posted a video of a supposedly Christian priest called Thomas Rajan who had been appointed at a temple by the Tamil Nadu government desecrating a Hindu idol and drinking alcohol. This created quite a furore and the MK Stalin government got a lot of flak before it was unearthed that two unrelated videos of 2020 and 2017 were stitched together with the beer-drinking priest revealing his name as Shankar!
25 October 2021 – After Pakistan defeated India by 10 wickets in the T20 World Cup the night before, nationalists started sharing news on social media platforms that the degrees of 100 female students in a medical college were ‘cancelled’ for celebrating Pakistan’s victory. While a huge vilification campaign was on full steam, leading news channels like News 18 also broadcast the same news. Little did they realise that there was no logic to this campaign as degrees are not conferred on students before they complete their courses. Alt News went ahead and did deep fact checks to reveal that this was yet another carefully orchestrated campaign against the Kashmiri!
I have cited 10 examples of “fake news” in a period of 45 days from the thousands that would have been created, circulated, and amplified across the country.
Johnny, Johnny? Yes, papa!
Reminds me of the nursery rhyme that goes…
Open your mouth…
This is about members of ‘civil society’ deliberately spinning and amplifying lies to the world at large using social media and communication platforms. Most of us share the ones that align with our belief system without even verifying the messages. And this goes on like an unabated disease that has afflicted all nooks and crannies of our country and the world.
Fake news is big business
In a 2017 interview, Tim Berners-Lee the founder of the World Wide Web had commented that fake news is one of the three biggest threats to the internet, the other two being cyber warfare and governmental citizen-surveillance. While fake news has been used in history for political purposes, it was a rare tool used only for the most severe of reasons like Octavian deliberately spreading false stories about Mark Antony leading to his suicide in 30 BC. Since the turn of the millennium, the rampant use of this tactic has made it a contagion.
Domain experts state that the term ‘fake news’ is too mild to describe the act and its impact and call it ‘information pollution’, operating at increasing levels of intent and impact as misinformation, disinformation and mal-information. While I totally agree with their logic, for the purposes of this piece I will use the term ‘fake news’ to cover all three types of information pollution.
Fake news was always part of our everyday life but for decades most of it was misinformation. Also, media coverage was limited as were the vehicles of information. So, the lesser we knew the better were. And we knew that was a fair amount of government propaganda on radio and television, but we took it in our stride and moved on. There were no major arguments leave alone any polarisation.
Today, it is difficult to end a day without a fair dosage of concocted messages being fed to us. As fake news has proliferated, so have platforms that help us spot and flag them. Some of the key websites from India that are signatories to the International Fact-Checking Network [IFCN] are Alt News, Boom, WebQoof, India Today Fact Check, Factly and Newschecker. Each of them is gainfully employed decoding each piece of communication every day, from the utterly harmless to the totally diabolic.
The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions have created a simple 8-step process to identify and call out fake news.
Diagnosis behind the Symptoms
While it is best to leave the hows and wheres of regulating, checking, reprimanding fake news, I wanted to understand what would make fake news so popular in our country. It is a bit like a doctor diagnosing the cause of an ailment based on the symptoms. For this, I spoke to two social anthropologists who wished to preserve their identities which I totally respect.
Based on my chats with them, I would categorise those who create and consciously amplify fake news into the following five types:
They create harmless distortions. Like the one below left that supposedly is a ‘rare’ photo of Swami Vivekananda bowling in a cricket match in 1884. The original is on the right. Many are done without any malice may be to have a good laugh at a society that shares without even checking or applying common sense, just like the one below that were shared by thousands across social media platforms!
Panic-sters / Alarmists
These people can be declared as ‘dangerous level 1’. Their key objective is to raise false alarms and create panic. Just like the BJP chief of West Bengal made a statement on the 10th of December that Kolkata was becoming a ‘mini Pakistan’ as the Bengali Hindu population has reduced to being 40 per cent in the city. This is clearly to create panic in a certain section of the voters before the municipal elections on the 19th. Similarly, I have come across a WhatsApp message calculating how India will become a Muslim majority country by 2050 and the Hindus need to take action and preserve Hindutva.
Then there are other alarmists like the ones who circulated videos of the kidnappings and death due to birthday bumps that I cited in the beginning. In the 20 months of Covid, we have come across thousands of alarmist messages and memes about the virus, oxygen shortage, vaccine ineffectiveness and so on.
This is ‘dangerous level 2’. These people are engaged by political parties, corporates, pressure groups and any other body that has a clear agenda. Having the Nazi Germany communication machinery as a benchmark, propagandists go about their tasks with a high level of dedication, churning out fake news by the minute.
Typically, large teams would be set up for the same, expressing opinions on almost everything that happens around them, from cricket to cryptocurrency. Their fake news will have an unabashed predictable pattern, just like the UP government’s using others’ photographs as their own. It’s all about themselves and their ideologies without spending too much time on the opposition or competition. The recipients clearly know of their allegiances and decide whether to support them or stay away.
Standing at ‘dangerous level 3’, these are basically rumour-mongers about the opposition or competition. They would choose a target for a specific period and then go hammer and tongs at them, just like a huge chunk of social media went about vilifying the farmers protesting the Farm Bills. The target need not always have a religious or communal angle. The objective is to create a sentiment against the target and its cause or movement.
Fire-starters can also operate in business spaces to create negative narratives as is done against passenger vehicles the moment air pollution levels go up in the national capital region. Even the current concentrated campaign against petrol and diesel vehicles is an example of a well-orchestrated attempt at demonising the category. Many times the fake news or narrative is created to also divert attention from the real ground-level issues.
These are the most dangerous for society and a nation as they basically subvert the fabric of society and the constitution. Subverters create ‘hate’. That is their only objective. Through hate comes division and polarisation. The current attempts by organised social media cells to drive a wedge between the Hindus and Muslims is a glaring example of dis-information and mal-information.
This set of fake news is to instigate people into action against a target. Right from concocted instances of ‘Love Jihad’ to a Muslim placing a copy of the Quran at the feet of a Durga idol in Bangladesh to instigate rioting and ethnic killing, this category of fake news capitalises on the most fragile insecurities in society. The creators of such incendiary content know no respect or remorse. Once this activity is state-supported, it leads to widespread social unrest degenerating into pogroms.
And what gives birth to this contagion? Based on the inputs by the social anthropologists, here are the five primary reasons.
This is the primary reason for almost all the ills around the world. Poverty, unemployment, deprivation and financial corruption have set sections of society upon each other. Lenin had once commented, “How can a man think with his mind when his throat is parched.” It is one of the rude perpetual realities of life. A look at the Human Development Index across India and its states will substantiate this point of view.
A smaller economic pie leads to more enemies accounting for narratives that are concocted against them. As a hypothetical example, if Uttar Pradesh was the most prosperous state in the country and all its residents had secure jobs, primary healthcare, proper education and a bright future, nobody would be bothered about other faiths and communities. There would be no time for such things as everyone would be busy building careers, providing for families and planning the next vacation. Divisive narratives would fall on deaf ears.
Coupled with economic inequality, social insecurity plays a crucial role in the creation and amplification of fake news. The ‘minorities’ have always been treated as one and never truly integrated into the mainstream. Secularism as a value lies only in the constitution. On the ground, we are amply split into castes, regions, tribes, clans, beliefs, and languages. We live in our self-imposed ghettos and quarters in villages, towns, and cities, with invisible borders drawn between groups. No conscious attempt has been made by any policymaker or administrator to dismantle such glass dividers as it is counter to building vote banks.
Social divisions lead to insecurity beyond mere economic factors. There may be a prosperous minority that continues to feel threatened by the social structure around it. Bohris and Sikhs are good examples. The 1984 pogrom of the Sikhs has injected deep-down insecurity in the community that cannot be erased easily.
Bolsanaro. Trump. Erdogan. Modi. Putin. Xinping. Duterte.
Very rarely has world history passed through a phase when there have been so many leaders at the same point of time who have tacitly supported and encouraged the use of fake news as a strategic political tool. They have used it either or both in their own countries as well as on others for specific outcomes.
Divisions and protectionism are key global agendas. This is a far cry from the 1970s when a large part of the world espoused unity and brotherhood. Hopefully, this phase shall perish in the next decade to allow us to rearrange and reorient ourselves.
Lack of Identity
As anthropologists, they commented that fake news or information pollution happens when there is a lack of identity for a collective or country. It is quite different from social insecurity. Even when a society may be seemingly secure it might suffer from a lack of recognition, regard, and respect by the world around it.
It does sound a bit esoteric at the outset but conceptually unravels itself when you look at the entity of “India” and ask yourself as to how many amongst us actually align with the value system of India and the Constitution that defines the nation. The fact that we are unable to look beyond our own little worlds and feel part of the larger concept of India is a demonstration of this lack of identity. The fact that we insult the constitution every day through our deeds is a demonstration of this lack of identity.
That is why we have this fascination with the defence forces as that is one operating entity beyond social and religious differences. This is why the soldier is admired and accepted as a role model in society.
Similarly, there is a lack of identity with the faith or religion one follows when the focus is on the protection of the faith rather than promotion and proliferation. When the narrative is based on either the fear of becoming a minority or on forcibly converting people, the faith rests on the shaky ground irrespective of its legacy and heritage.
Impotent education system
Lastly, the quality and content of our primary education play a crucial role in how our minds are developed and nurtured in our adolescence. We are taught ‘social science’ but not ‘social consciousness’. We are taught historical events but never made to absorb them and respect them. And the spirit of questioning and challenging the teacher and the content is an act of insubordination.
The modern education system is also doing away with subjectivity as life seems to be about multiple-choice questions. Aspects like interpretations, opinions, perspectives, and counterpoints have been flushed down the educationist’s system. Today students get 99 per cent marks in English and History because learning operates like a search engine looking only for keywords, expressions, numbers and dates and nothing else. We are becoming more informed and less conscious…perfect fodder for the social media manipulator and creator of fake news.
Is there hope?
There surely is. The two recipients of the Nobel Prize for Peace are crusaders against the current contagion of information pollution. Marie Ressa and Dmitry Muratov are journalist torchbearers who shall lead us out of this dark side of our lives or as Muratov terms the “post-truth period”. Accepting her medal on the 10th of December, Ressa said that the greatest threat to democracy is when lies become facts. “Because that breaks our shared reality that allows the manipulation of the public”, she added.
Muratov says that manipulation allows for war. “Social scientists have shown that, when even knowing what is the truth and what is a lie, 75 per cent of people will consider the lie as truth as they like the lie better. This is happening already. We are at the very bottom of the manipulation of the human mind.”
The last time a journalist got the Nobel Prize for Peace was Carl von Ozzietsky in 1935 when he spoke about and against the rise of Nazism and the rearmament of Germany under Hitler. Sadly, he could not collect his prize as was imprisoned by then!
Goebbels would love to see these times that eulogise his skills.
Or maybe he would feel crowded out by people more sinister and colder.
The very tools that the manipulators, subverters, and dividers use shall be used against them when society turns civil and civilized. Till then, resolute patience is the key to survival!
(Avik Chattopadhyay is co-creator of Expereal India. Also, he is the former head of marketing, product planning, and PR at Volkswagen India. He was associated with Maruti Suzuki, Apollo Tyres, and Groupe PSA as well.)
(Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Autofintechs.com. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.)