The line between fiction and fact

As the debate on ‘fake news’ rages worldwide, we need to understand its local manifestations in India

Updated - July 01, 2018 03:21 pm IST

Published - April 24, 2017 12:15 am IST

”When people look only to private media for factual information and news, chances are that a lie doing the rounds eventually establishes itself as truth.”

”When people look only to private media for factual information and news, chances are that a lie doing the rounds eventually establishes itself as truth.”

North-east Germany is home to a number of neo-Nazi groups. They are small in number, yet their views on the purity of the Aryan race are straight out of 1930s Germany. That they have lived in relative obscurity for half a century is due thankfully to the absence of the Internet. However, for the last decade or so, their hateful presence is being felt not just in a country inundated with Syrian refugees, but on a host of websites too. Without digitisation, the lies they perpetuated would never have appeared in public forums, and would have perhaps died off in a few years. But the Internet gave them a larger voice and the power to spew hate in an altogether new medium.

Propaganda becomes news

The dangers of such Internet media are now beginning to be felt in India. We have today 160 million WhatsApp users, 150 million Facebook followers, and over 22 million Twitter accounts. A right-wing WhatsApp group sends out thousands of nationalist videos around the country every day, spreading a host of lies: that Muslims will overrun the country, and northeasterners are Chinese agents. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s proficiency in new media was itself visible throughout the recent Assembly election campaigns. Knowing full well the advantages of such instant messaging, the party pushed its agenda on Twitter aggressively. Whatever the messages, they are often taken on their word; private opinion is mistaken for public proclamation, propaganda accepted as news. A largely illiterate citizenry is more likely to gain information, like the neo-Nazis, without a filter. Whom to believe, how much, and under what circumstance becomes impossible to verify when the source is a tweet, a private opinion, a like.

When people look only to private media for factual information and news, chances are that a lie doing the rounds eventually establishes itself as truth. It travels the full course — passed on from Facebook, tweeted into shared accounts, across thousands of unsure minds, spreading like wild fire without proof or doubt — till opinion becomes fact, and belief becomes total. A well-known doctor in Bihar was announced dead on WhatsApp after an income tax raid at his house declared vast hoardings of illegal currency. It took a press conference for him to pronounce both his innocence and existence.

Earlier, the absence of social media allowed incendiary private opinion to die before it left the walls of your home. Now, every private utterance has the possibility of making it big in the public space. You can make claims and arguments without facts; you can raise outright lies to the level of conspiracies. Fake news is a sort of Photoshop for words and ideas. When you can put together a convincing picture of Sachin Tendulkar’s head on the body of Vidya Balan and pass it off as real, it isn’t unusual to suddenly conjure up Jayalalithaa’s daughter in some remote corner of the U.S. as fact. Factors of believability lie in the medium itself. A photo of Narendra Modi sweeping the floor at a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh rally was circulated in 2015. The RSS’s denial of its legitimacy was accompanied with the pre-Photoshopped picture of the actual person with the broom.

In a world where there is no difference between broadcast journalism, print, or social media, anything is capable of becoming news. Thanks to U.S. President Donald Trump’s irresponsible statement that former President Barack Obama was foreign-born, millions in the U.S. now believe that Mr. Obama is a foreigner, despite the retraction. Mr. Trump, of course, uses the phrase “fake news” rather liberally, mainly to discredit the mainstream media and direct people’s attention away from his own lies and gaffes. Within the world of the Internet, in fact, the distinctions between making news, reporting news, and sharing news is all the more blurred. News may be reported in papers and news channels, but when political parties and business groups promote their ideological agendas and Facebook becomes the primary source for news, then fact, opinion and propaganda become one and the same.

Unreliable information

This is true of other forms of information as well. In the 1960s, the Encyclopaedia Britannica was the singlemost valuable compendium of relevant information gathered into alphabetically arranged volumes. It served students, institutions and private researchers for basic information. Its entries were the work of scholars and specialists whose credentials were impeccable and duly recorded in the book.

Wikipedia, on the other hand, allows anyone to propose information related to its growing archive, however inaccurate — all in the hope that the open format will itself act as an editorial corrective, and eventually the inputs of many will inform and embellish each sketch into coherence. Is this any way to work a legitimate entry into the world’s most informed network encyclopaedia?

Obviously it is not a crime to spread opinion, but it certainly is when it masquerades as real news. Every second person in the U.S. has a Facebook profile, and the chat rooms are filled with ideas about institutions failing, democracy on the decline, rigged polls, fake news, racist rants. In a country like ours, however, with cultural and religious diversity practised, but with social inhibitions still strong, and the freedom to speak openly, a constitutional right but a public handicap, private media platforms present a challenge. For a population still largely uneducated and entirely unused to a cosmopolitanism co-existence, the urgency to believe in something, anything, is often a need not based on informed opinion. When something happens, the consequences are unlikely to be contested in courts, but more likely to be tested in the battlefield of the city.

Gautam Bhatia is a Delhi-based architect and writer

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