Comment | Almond milk, fake news and the pandemic

Winners do not merely get to write history, but also to bestow the titles of fact and fake on pieces of current information. Someone’s fake news is someone else’s ultimate truth, it appears.

Updated - May 19, 2020 06:55 pm IST

Published - May 19, 2020 06:43 pm IST

Representational image

Representational image

Is almond milk ‘milk’? Or is it a fake claim?

Dairy farmers in the U.S. want government regulation to prevent the labelling of soya milk and almond milk as milk. Producers of these items, however, claim they are protected under free speech! They call it “commercial free speech.” In any case, who can stop anyone from calling the sun, the moon?

Also read: Billion-dollar question: what is an egg?

The fake news versus factual news debate is something comparable. There appears to be no wide agreement on what is fake news. The reigning political establishments in both India and the U.S. are accused of peddling fake news while they accuse their accusers of spreading fake news.

The COVID-9 pandemic has made this chaos even more deranged. As the crisis began to unfold, the government warned the people to stay away from fake news. Efforts were made by government agencies to fact-check reports. All this took a disturbing turn soon, and now there are several journalists facing cases for allegedly spreading fake news, and in some instances, even sedition!

Editoral | Faking danger: on fighting fake news

Government measures to deal with the pandemic are largely backed by the Disaster Management Act of 2005. Section 54 of the Act provides for “punishment for false warning.” “Whoever makes or circulates a false alarm or warning as to disaster or its severity or magnitude, leading to panic…. Whoever makes or circulates a false alarm or warning as to disaster or its severity or magnitude, leading to panic,” are liable for punishment under the Act.

What is false warning can be a tricky question. Who knows what is the accurate severity or magnitude of COVID-19? What we know is that people who are facing cases are mostly those who reported on inefficiencies or insensitivity of the state. There can even be a case that the more accurate the reporting on the government’s ineptitude, the more widespread the panic goes! In Gujarat, a journalist is facing a case for reporting that Chief Minister Vijay Rupani may be replaced. The state has arrogated to itself the power of the editor — the duty to judge and decide what is worthy of dissemination in all media.

Also read: Coronavirus | Fear factor combined with fake news creates new ‘infodemic’ on social media

Next year, it will be 100 years after Guardian editor C.P. Scott wrote, “comment is free but facts are sacred.” Some of the most contentious statements of our time may not lend themselves to this classification easily. ‘Trade is good for the economy,’ ‘market helps poor people,’ ‘labour laws are not helping the labourers,’ ‘borders are irrelevant’, ‘migration advances prosperity’ — are these facts or comments?

‘India was under slavery for 1200 years’ — comment or fact?

In fact, depending on one’s opinion, people marshal data and numbers to prove or disprove any of these points.

Also read: A new wave of the fake news pandemic is born

Science and experts are supposed to help us with all this. Journalists often depend on experts. Experts often disagree and take long before arriving at any conclusion. They also change their views — for instance, dominant experts in the U.S. agreed until recently that China trade was good but now they say it may be bad. They could also go wrong or may be motivated — for instance, experts concluded that Iraq under Saddam Hussain possessed WMDs and posed an imminent threat to the U.S. They were wrong, but the turmoil they triggered continues till date.

Most things about COVID-19 are still being examined by experts and scientists: can it be airborne, for instance.

Journalism reflects this flux. It does not, and cannot wait for the final and ultimate fact to be arrived at, and announced. Similar is the case with a change of guard in a State or a deemed failure of the police or other agents of the state. Someone who claims superior knowledge may mislead the reporter. Whether a story merits publication, hence is a matter of judgement. And judgements could also go wrong. What this situation does not warrant is a state intervention to separate facts from the fake. As SC Justice D.Y. Chandrachud remarked on Tuesday in the context of Arnab Goswami’s obnoxious rants that pass of as journalism, “questions you cannot answer are better than answers you cannot question.”

Also read: Google releases $1 million to combat fake news in India

The state’s claim, the executive’s to be specific, to be the ultimate controller of information, even arbiter of fact and truth, predates the pandemic, and journalism had conceded this in good measure. There is no way journalism can independently verify most of the claims of the state regarding national security. What happened in Doklam? What happened in Balakot? A journalist has to take the government’s word as true, or at best, seek clarification or explanation from individual sources within the government. Sometime a different government has a different story and facts may end up valid only within national boundaries. For instance, India said it shot down an F-16 fighter jet of Pakistan in early 2019. Later, reports quoting sources in the U.S. government said no F-16 was shot down.

Did Russia interfere in the U.S. presidential elections in 2016? The U.S. media reports are based on what the country’s security agencies say. There is no way a journalist can verify whether Russia interfered or not. Did China behave responsibly in dealing with the pandemic? There will be contradictory journalistic accounts, based on information from different governments and agencies, all processed through political prisms. This power of the state is increasing.

When information that the state wants to conceal is exposed through unconventional means, such as Edward Snowden’s act of releasing U.S. government’s surveillance data, that becomes an act of espionage, theft and “unauthorized communication.”

Also read: Genuine news misinterpreted, turns ‘fake’ news

Truth is no defence; its revelation becomes anti-national, an act of sedition.

The judiciary that can scrutinise executive claims of complete control over all information is increasingly reluctant to do that. The judiciary has been extremely deferential to the executive on security matters both in India and the U.S. India’s apex court has repeatedly decided on matters of liberty and probity based on information that the government submitted in sealed envelops in recent times. This information remains inaccessible to the public and even to people directly impacted by these decisions.

So, not only the state gets to decide whether one’s action or word is against the nation or not, but also what is milk. The labelling of facts and fake is influenced by politics — if dairy farmers lobby better, almond milk will become almond juice. Winners not merely get to write history, but also get the right to bestow the titles of fact and fake on pieces of current information.

Someone’s fake news is someone else’s ultimate truth, it appears.

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