The 2019 Union Budget envisaged India to become a $5 trillion economy within a period of 5 years. Now, since everybody is an expert on everything, the challenges to attain the goal and the current problems with the economy was just ignored. Problems like high unemployment, falling rupees, slump in manufacturing sector, failing agricultural sector, low consumption etc. were normalized for an utopian dream. But economic problems are not something that goes away on its own, so, when the Indian media reported more than 3500 tonnes of gold reserves in Uttar Pradesh’s Sonbhadra district it became a cause for celebration. It was blown out of proportion like everything else and India was made 2nd richest country in the world in a span of few hours. It was not some WhatsApp forward or a tweet by a paid social influencer, experienced journalists and big media houses reported it and debated it with full fervour. Comparison were even made to the arrival of ‘Ramrajya’ because the Ram Mandir of Ayodhya was being built. But alas! The festivities remained for just 2 days when the Geological Survey of India (GSI) ruined the party by claiming that the total gold reserves were just about 160kg. As mentioned before, since everybody is an expert on everything nobody cared to ask the actual experts i.e. the GSI.
This was the month of February 2020. In March 2020 India started taking the COVID-19 pandemic seriously after the Prime Minister declared a nation-wide lockdown. Until then as suggested by some tweets and WhatsApp messages, most people thought that the tropical climate of the country would act as the ultimate vaccine. The PM had asked the citizens to come to their windows and balconies and appreciate the healthcare workers by clapping for a few minutes (again blown out of proportion by us). Someone reasoned that noise made by a billion people would kill the virus. To avoid any further nuisance by us, the PM next called for a concert like event where everybody waved their mobile phone flashlight in approval. This time someone reasoned that lighting candles and flashlights together would definitely kill the virus. Further, WhatsApp messages started pouring in with ways to kill the virus by drinking warm water as the virus stays in the throat for 7 days before infecting the respiratory system and holding the hairdryer close to the neck could kill the virus. Some of these homemade cures were as good as microwaving the mobile phone thinking it would recharge the battery in seconds.
The above two stories are examples of ‘fake news’ and ‘misinformation’ which were heavily circulated but contained zero truth, no scientific explanations and sugar coated for maximum acceptability. While some of the above cited instances can be laughed off as jokes, fake news and misinformation can hurt much worse.
It was not long ago that lives were lost to mob lynching instigated by the social media uploads. The same horrors emerged during the recent protests against CAA, NRC and NPR. Degrading and disgusting messages and social media uploads were made to denigrate a particular community, which ultimately led to the recent Delhi riots. These messages and uploads have continued during the pandemic blaming everything on the same community. Jingoism and bigotry have taken over humanity. Responsible people who could have shattered the false claims just played along and watched while mockery was made of human life and rule of law.
Further the name of the recent relief fund PM CARES that was formed to receive donations was hijacked to divert the funds to a scam account. Fake news and misinformation have damaged every social and economic fabric that exists. Not a single sense of morality is alive even when the world has literally been brought down to its knees.
The Truth About Fake News and Misinformation
The term ‘fake news’ gained currency during the 2016 US presidential campaign where it was used as a political satire. However, the term now stands for all things inaccurate and even applied in contexts that are unrelated to mediated communications. Since a definition would put things under perspective and there are no concrete definitions till date for this buzzword, a look into the features and few concepts would help.
Fake news or correct news have one thing in common- content. Content can be classified as correct content or false content. Misinformation and disinformation are born out of false content. While misinformation means incorrect or misleading information disseminated unintentionally, disinformation is incorrect or misleading facts disseminated intentionally. Fake news has been synonymously used with misinformation and disinformation more often than not.
After reviewing available studies and numerous news reports on fake news, three common characteristics are visible (1) low in facticity; (2) created with the intention to deceive and (3) presented in a journalistic format. It cannot be disputed that fake news contains false information which can be false connection, misleading content, false context or manipulated content. At the same time fake news can be completely fabricated, or partly true but correct information. Therefore, it can be easily implied that fully or partly untrue messages can be termed as fake news.
One of the essential and defining elements of fake news is its intention to deceive. The main motivations for deception are mostly either political, ideological (religious) or financial. With rising nationalist trends, extreme political and religious ideologies are accepted very easily as it helps in maintaining the identities. The recent scam where the name of PM CARES fund was hijacked to divert funds to a scam account was a classic case of deception. However, there might be two reasons that fake news is created- for humor such as a parody or satire, or, to provoke a section of society. The difference between the two is the creation of fake news and its dissemination. While creation of fake news is intentional, its dissemination may be unintentional.
The third important factor is the presentation in a journalistic format. The gold reserves of Sonbhadra district was presently and debated directly by the established media houses. Since the country has been going through a bad economic phase it seemed like a relief and was accepted easily. In addition to established news providers, several pseudo journalist websites have been created to add fuel to the fire. After the Pulwama attacks, with emotions running high in the country, these pseudo journalist websites, social media and messaging apps did irreparable damages with false and misleading content.
Keeping the above features in mind, it can be said that fake news is disinformation presented in journalistic format. However, disinformation exceeds the concept of fake news and can go well beyond anything that even slightly resembles news.
Two concepts that should be mentioned here are rumours and conspiracy theories. Both rumours and conspiracy theories can originate either form misinformation or disinformation, or, can be totally true. Lack of evidence and widespread social transmission characterize rumours. And on the other hand, conspiracy theories are endeavours to oversimplify events or practices and provide a personified source of injustice and sorrow.
Source of the Evil
Fake news and other related concepts mentioned above are traits of intelligent beings and have been around in history. It is the extraordinary spatial and temporal spread which is new and a cause for concern. The rise and popularity of internet and social media is closely related to the rise of fake news. Portable devices with long battery life and cheap internet have made news a 24X7 business. Internet has made the world a global village where rumours, conspiracy theories, fake news and misinformation spread like wildfire.
With news dissemination through internet and pseudo journalistic sources, the gatekeeping function of professional journalism is impaired. It is becoming challenging everyday to differentiate between true content and false content. Further, 24X7 news has also deteriorated the quality of the content, which may be due to less time given for research or low research abilities. It might also be possible that journalists distort facts deliberately as they have personal or organizational intentions to deceive.
In addition to the above two reasons, fake news also fulfils financial purposes. Fake news can easily sway user behaviour and provide quick benefits to its disseminators. Further, in digital advertising more numbers of clicks and views are needed for business success rather than the quality and accuracy of the content. This idea has given birth to ‘clickbait’, where news is solely created for attention through sensational and emotionally appealing headlines.
The above reasons have created a distrust among the public towards news media. This has been effectively used, especially by politicians who term even accurate news as fake news which is easily accepted by the people because of the distrust. This distrust is also used by the politicians to distort history, and then present with comfortable and convenient facts. This political polarization of news leads to homogenous networks where opposing views are less or even rare. With no criticism or opposing views, fake news is easily consumed.
The above reasons can lead to one last question- then why do people fall for fake news? The answer is provided in the book ‘The Misinformation Age: How False Beliefs Spread’ by scholars Cailin O’Connor and James Owen Weatherall. They stress that people accept fake news because of the urge to conform to the consensus view of a community. It makes sense because not many want to stand out in a group of people and they usually conform with each other’s beliefs and views.
The damages done by fake news and misinformation are insurmountable and the wounds would take years to heal. The damages can be seen in everything from political to social, cultural, financial, administrative, and even intellectual. News media with their political biasness and jingoism has blurred the line between fake and fact creating a rift in the society, dividing it into religious and political ideologies and nationalist identities. After the Pulwama attack in 2019, false and misleading content flooded social media and messaging apps as the country tried to make sense of the horrifying violence. The false content circulated online was amplified by some news media and conspiracy theories were created. The severity of this problem forced the CRPF to debunk the claims and note the hatred that was being promoted. The Pulwama attack took place just before the 2019 elections. The fake news peddled during this time seriously influenced the voter behaviour. The whole 2019 general elections were contested on the basis of ‘my information’ vs ‘your information’.
A common man when comes across a piece of information is hardly worried about the source of the information. And, if the information is about an event or person directly affecting his identity, he would conform to the other’s views who are also affected by this piece of information. The recent rise in mob-lynching cases and violence which led to deaths were due to this phenomenon.
Fake news can also seriously affect the financial sector. A fake letter from the CEO for a serious change in corporate strategy or staging an event that shows products of a company in bad light produced as sensationalized headlines can hurt a company’s reputation, bringing the stock prices down. Many companies are now hiring firms that bring out viral videos or posts that can send shares into downward spiral. In 2019, the electric vehicle manufacturing company, Tesla, became the target of fake news when a video surfaced showing a Tesla “self-driving vehicle” ramming into a robot prototype at a consumer electronics show. Only problem with video was that it was fake as Tesla currently does not have self-driving cars. With a large part of the population still skeptical about the self-driving cars, the general consumer acceptance and trust in self-driving cars came to an all-time low.
Coming to the present, when the world is fighting the pandemic, fake news has put lives at risk. Various alternative treatments have been circulated in social media and in messaging apps. Some of these treatments include teas, essential oil, colloidal silver, herbal therapies and tinctures. There are no scientific explanations that these therapies or treatments work. Some of it might not be safe to consume. It is important to understand that natural does not always mean safe and better for the health. It was in this backdrop that the WHO Director-General said “we are not just fighting an epidemic, we’re fighting an infodemic”.
Talking about scientific explanations, scientific temper is at an all-time low. Eminent personalities have used illogical and imaginary facts to explain something that they do not understand. The latest example to this would be Mr. Amitabh Bachchan who forgot the most basic arithmetic operation in his tweets.
The worst damage that fake news does is bring down the reputation of the country. The illogical and imaginary facts by eminent personalities become laughing-stock and fodder for the trolls on the internet. If continued on the same path it would not be long before someone calls India the ‘land of snake charmers’ again.
How to Recognize Fake News? How to Deal with Fake News?
The credibility of information depends on evidence. Lack of sufficient material to support the veracity of the information questions the legitimacy of the information. However, testing or fact checking of a piece of information is a daunting task for ordinary citizens.
There are a few ways to spot fake news:
- Check the source- check the ‘about us’ page of the website and investigate the website. For images a Google reverse image search can be done and for videos the metadata can be checked to find the details of the same. Usually date, time and place can be found after the search.
- Check the author- search for other works of the author and if credible.
- Headline can be outrageous and misleading for click baits. Reading more on the topic can be helpful.
- Check the supporting sources and read to see if they actually support the news or the post.
- Check to see if the post is too outlandish and has been presented as a satire.
- If possible, ask the experts.
- Check own biases and beliefs and see if it affects the judgement.
The current response primarily involves rebuttal, removal and educating the public. Rebuttal can be done by methods as pointed out above. Once fake news appears on institutional handles, attempts are made for removal after rebuttal. There is much pressure on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to remove fake content. WhatsApp introduced limits on message forwarding when it was made the source of all evils related to fake news. The last response revolves around educating the public by informing them of verification tools so that the accuracy of news can be ascertained.
However, there are some evident shortcomings in the above approach. Fake news is being churned out continuously and by the time one is debunked the other becomes a cause for concern to advance its chosen narrative. And secondly it is difficult to completely remove a fake news even after its rebuttal given the decentralized way of dissemination.
Singapore recently passed a law criminalizing fake news and allowing authorities to remove objectionable content online. It has even allowed policing of private conversations to ensure that misinformation is not transmitted. The move by the Singapore government has been criticized by opposition parties, human rights groups and tech companies due to its vagueness and anti-privacy stance. So, does India need one? Even if India brings a law to fight fake news it should be careful that it does not stifle the freedom of speech but safeguard its citizen from the dangers of fake news and misinformation.
In the recent years fake news has become a buzzword and done some real damage. While the word depicts anything that is fake it has also been used to delegitimize accurate information. The advent of internet, social media and free messaging apps have increased the circulation of fake news. Increased circulation and sugar-coated information are easily accepted by people. Incorrect or misleading information that imposes a threat to the people lead to adverse events such as mob-lynching, violence and deaths. There is presently no law that stops the spread of fake news. But even if a law or regulation is brought it should be ensured that it does not affect the freedom of speech and privacy of the people.