Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth — Joseph Goebbels
On March 5, 2015, an outraged mob of 7,000-8,000 stormed into Dimapur jail, dragged out a rape accused, and lynched him. A government report to the Centre following that event said “it appeared to be a case of consensual sex”. It also said the victim had paid the woman Rs 5,000 after they twice had sex.
The spark behind the attack was a Facebook post that claimed that the man, a Muslim, was an illegal immigrant from Bangladesh. In reality, Syed Farid Khan was a 35-year-old used car businessman. Originally from Karimganj district in Assam, Khan had been living in Nagaland for eight years.
That was the first real instance of fake news being directly responsible for the loss of a life in India. Since then, the “industry” has only exploded, and India can thank its ruling dispensation for that. The BJP has become pioneers in unleashing its massive army of Twitter trolls on both voices of dissent against the party and the government as well as Opposition leaders. The phenomenon first began after the party anointed Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections; since then, it has only got worse. There have been attempts to falsify facts to either glorify the government and the party or undermine the Opposition, including celebrities who hold an opposing view.
The BJP’s massive information-technology cell uses photo editing software, source images from other countries — positive and negative — and use those to further their goals. But the phenomenon is not entirely Indian.
Long before Modi even considered running for India’s premiership, a burgeoning fake news industry existed in Nazi Germany, and, after its fall, the Soviet Union. The powers that be in these two countries used the lack of alternative information sources to further their agenda by using propaganda machinery.
Robert Darnton traces this history even further, going back, through the Roman “pasquinade”, French “canards”, and English “paragraphs”, to the sixth century AD.
George Orwell was the first to identify the problem of fake news in Politics and the English Language where he explained that political language “is designed to make lies sound truthful” through the use of “euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness”. Donald J. Trump’s senior adviser Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts” has its roots in this theory.
The explosion of the Internet and its easy availability coincided with the growth and expansion of fake news to become what it is now — and social media, especially Facebook, has been blamed for its role in that expansion. The New York Times, in an editorial, even went as far as calling it the “digital virus”.
The term itself first caught on after Trump accused CNN of being “fake news” during his first press conference as president-elect. In fact, Trump was perhaps the biggest winner of the fake news industry that has made Facebook its home.
Max Read went as far as crediting the social media giant for Trump’s rise. “The most obvious way in which Facebook enabled a Trump victory has been its inability (or refusal) to address the problem of hoax or fake news,” he wrote in Donald Trump Won Because of Facebook.
When people were still reliant on newspapers and television and radio for information, editors and reporters had the nous to suppress conspiracy theories or stories that could potentially cause harm. Although these would slip out at times, such occurrences were rare thanks to the “gatekeepers” (editors, reporters) of the news industry. But the explosion of the Internet have made them redundant.
Several surveys have put the percentage of people whose primary source of news as social media significantly higher than those that depend on mainstream sources. The results of a 2016 YouGov survey of 50,000 people across 26 countries and published by the BBC put social media ahead of television as the main source of news for people in the 18-to-24 age bracket. The results also showed that of the people surveyed, 28 per cent of the youth cited social media as their main news source, compared with 24 per cent for television. The study also found that Facebook was the most common source — used by 44 per cent of the respondents, followed by YouTube on 19 per cent and Twitter on 10 per cent.
A Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism research showed 51 per cent of people with online access used social media as a news source. It also showed that more than half of all online users across the 36 countries (54 per cent) it surveyed said they used social media as a source of news each week, ranging from 76 per cent in Chile to 29 per cent in Japan and Germany. It said that more than one in 10 (14 per cent) were now dependent on social media as their main source.
It’s not only the consumers who depend on social media for news. A survey of 275 people, including 239 journalists and 36 from related professions such as PR and brand consultants, communication managers, content writers, journalism students, ex-journalists, conducted by The Hoot, an Indian website that monitors media in the subcontinent, found how the advent of social media has changed news-gathering as well. It showed that among the journalists who professionally used social media, 69 per cent (190 out of 275) for Twitter and 61 per cent (169 out of 275) for Facebook, used the two forums as a news source, including to find leads for their stories.
Facebook’s pre-eminence as a source of dissemination of news, while getting a lot more people in the know, also has its downside. In the run-up to the presidential elections in the United States, Gizmodo published a story where a former news curator at the social media giant said they routinely suppressed stories of interest to conservative readers from its Trending section. The former journalist, who worked on the project, said they prevented conservative topics from appearing in the section despite organically trending among the site’s users.
This caused furore across the country and there were calls on Facebook to investigate. Three days later, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said the company “found no evidence that this report is true.” Another two days later, Facebook announced automating Trending Topics, fired the section’s editorial team and replaced them with engineers. While many thought that would curtail the problem of fake news, a Washington Post experiment dispelled that myth with Facebook Has Repeatedly Trended Fake News Since Firing Its Human Editors.
Perhaps the greatest view of the inner workings of Facebook came from John Herrman in The New York Times Magazine. His Inside Facebook’s (Totally Insane, Unintentionally Gigantic, Hyperpartisan) Political-Media Machine highlighted “how a strange new class of media outlet has arisen to take over our news feeds”.
What social media has done is made news “social”. Instead of verifying the truth or logic behind the link to a news being shared on Facebook or Twitter, people tend to be driven by the number of “likes” and/or “retweets” the item has as well as the potential number of “likes” and/or “retweets” it will get them. The user interface and options available on social media have also made people dependent on social media, and, as a result, susceptible to fall prey to fake news. There is also the question of crediblity, and having been a credible source for new for a long time, any post or news shared on Facebook and Twitter are naturally accepted at face value.
Writing on the US presidential election coverage, Hermann found that “a brighter media narrative was unfolding in the growing importance of online social networks — the real new mass media. On Facebook and Twitter, election coverage could be consumed on a large scale, and readers were promised a restructuring of the news media that put them in a position of greater power”.
Twitter allows users to post photos and videos, making news delivery livelier. Facebook, with its 1.5 billion users worldwide, has the capacity to reach more people than all media organisations in the world, combined. Millions of people are on the platform throughout the day or updating news and articles on what they believe their friends might also be interested in.
The dangerous thing, however, according to the YouGov survey, is that consumers are happy to have their news selected by algorithms. Thirty-six per cent of the respondents said they would like news chosen based on what they had read before and 22 per cent were happy for their news agenda to be based on what their friends had read. “People like the convenience of algorithms choosing their news but are worried about whether that would mean they were missing out on key points or challenging viewpoints,” said lead author of the report Nic Newman.
This system has one drawback — instead of the users looking for the right content, it has revered to content looking for the right users.
So, why do people fall for fake news? Dr Michael Shermer links it to four factors — cognitive simplicity, cognitive dissonance, backfire effect and tribal unity. Some others have suggested that confirmation bias — the idea that we selectively seek out information that confirms our beliefs — was the root of the problem. There is also the factor of the casual reader’s relative inattentiveness towards the credibility of the news source.
Then, there are the people who willfully consume and share falsehood through fake news. During the recent communal clashes in Bengal’s Basirhat-Baduria towns, leaders and spokespersons of the BJP spread misinformation, even sharing images of the Gujarat riots as those of that in Bengal.
The recent lynchings in Jharkhand are another example of how misinformation has spread its roots and the manner in which it incites violence is a clear indicator of the dangers of social media, especially WhatsApp. “WhatsApp has become the most popular form of rich messaging, better than SMS and MMS,” said anti-fake news crusader Pratik Sinha, whose AltNews has taken up the mantle of busting online myths.
“The conditions under which messages circulate often tend to act as triggers. In an already charged environment, false pieces of information could be interpreted in ways that contribute to enhancing pre-existing prejudice, rumours or intent,” said Vibodh Parthasarthy, faculty member at the Centre for Culture, Media and Governance at Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi.
Half-truths and misinformation are regularly circulated on these mass media platforms and many regularly forward these to their friends, peers and colleagues without even verifying the truth. India is teeming with journalism schools which lay emphasis on two very important aspects of the profession — the 5Ws&H (who, when, what, where, why and how of an incident) and verifying a piece of news from multiple sources.
Despite the efforts of these premier journalism institutes, even corporate media houses fall victim to fake propaganda in their haste to get a story on air or print.
Sinha’s AtlNews is one of several websites that have taken up the task of debunking fake news and misinformation. Others, including Boomlive and SMHoaxSlayer, have taken the fight to the spread of misinformation, but founders of all these websites agree that more such portals are needed to tackle the menace. “On social media, the manpower behind the pushing of the propaganda plays an important role. And the Right-wingers have the numbers,” Sinha said.
Fake news is not, however, just the forte of the Right-wing; Left-wing websites have also started spreading misinformation against Trump on several websites.
“We realised there was a huge gap in what the media was trying to say and what people were believing, so we decided to use Boom to break down every such story,” Boomlive’s managing editor Jency Jacob said.
“While 230 million people have WhatsApp, they do not always have access to newspapers to verify what was sent to them,” said Govindraj Ethiraj, former editor-in-chief of Bloomberg TV India, and founder of Boomlive. “What also comes as a surprise to us is how politicians and powerful public figures cite numbers or share pictures which are clearly fake,” he said.
However, the instances of political leaders spreading misinformation shows that not everyone who fall victim to fake news do so unknowingly. Many do it on purpose to achieve some political goal, making that old adage of ends justifying the means ring true.
The views expressed in this blog are mine unless otherwise mentioned.