By Manik Sharma Apr. 06, 2018
Earlier this week, Narendra Modi withdrew an order from the I&B Ministry proposing to cancel the accreditation of journalists who were spreading fake news. But if we are serious about combating fake news, let’s begin with the IT cells of political parties.
About a month ago I met an estranged uncle of mine, whom I’d stopped talking to years ago and un-followed – although not un-friended – on Facebook. Of this chance reunion the most disconcerting memory that refuses to leave my head is his deceptively convenient image of reality. “Arré tum toh likhte ho na, tumhe toh pata hi hoga kaise Muslim humein dabaa rahe hain,” he said.
Of the many things he proposed during the conversation, which I tried on more than one occasion to leave, many had a common thread: Like the idea that it was Hindu history that was under threat of being overhauled, or that upper-caste Hindus were struggling to get into public offices and into positions of power, and that the possibility of a violent Muslim resurgence was upon us because in his words “badalenge thode na yeh log.” The first thing I did after escaping his chokehold of misinformation was to go to his Facebook timeline and see where he was getting all this dubious information from. The answer: Postcard News.
On April 3, Prime Minister Narendra Modi – after widespread criticism from various organisations and a Twitter outrage – withdrew an order from the Information and Broadcasting Ministry that proposed to cancel the accreditation of journalists who were spreading fake news. Of the order, it is said, the Prime Minister knew nothing. Whether that is actual news or fake, you decide. Even before the embers of that shocker could cool, news broke that the I&B Ministry had decided to constitute a government panel to “regulate” online news and websites. We all know what that means.
Yet, Mr Modi’s intervention can be interpreted in several ways: The obvious one is that he envisions a fair fourth estate, independent of any constraints, and free to hold accountable, any of the pillars of democracy – including his own government. The more cynical, but also the more realistic interpretation, is that it is a play for the 2019 elections. It is designed to make him and the BJP government appear like they don’t want to tie the media to a leash, a sort of course correction.
The internet age was supposed to be the age of information; we believed we were on the verge of the second enlightenment.
Because in reality, that is what the ruling government has done in its time in office. Before I am shot, let me put out the usual caveat: Yeah yeah, I know that the Congress presided over the Emergency and some sections of the media – in the words of LK Advani – “when asked to bend… crawled.” But I suppose attempting to crush of any form of dissent – whether from the media or from individuals – is the remit of every ruling party.
Last year in September, Gauri Lankesh, a Kannada journalist and a fearless critic of the BJP’s Hindutva politics was murdered in cold blood outside her home. One couldn’t help but wonder if the murder itself was the message to journalists and reporters who critiqued the government, its ideologies or its governance. Far from ensuring the safety of journalists, the government has sought to tighten the noose around their necks.
It is now tiring to repeat how most media factories are corporate-owned and willing to further barter their influence in exchange for pushing stories that are favourable, and censoring those that aren’t. In such a scenario, a journalist, regardless of the language or medium they work in can either abandon the basic principles of journalism and work on the right side of the bottom line. Or “go rogue”, become independent, stake your livelihood and life as some have already done.
Or, you know, launch a fake news business. It seems to have worked in the favour of some people.
The internet age was supposed to be the age of information; we believed we were on the verge of the second enlightenment. Instead, we’ve crashed and burned ingloriously, and are left with the debris of agendas and provocations. Information that was previously uniform now has sides; and given how modern living has become a function of choice, even in the spectrum of news and information we consider the colours we want to see, trust the news we want to hear, and believe the people we have inexplicable biases for.
Which is why people who suffer from RSS-sized complexes of Hindu victimhood believe that Muslims are still a threat, despite their tender position in the current state of affairs. They are willing to believe that Dalits are grabbing their jobs even though a majority of the civil services and even the private sector (the media included by the way) is largely upper-caste. We are subjected to comically embarrassing fabrications with the same level of fact-checking as a WhatsApp forward, like that of India being a vegetarian country or that Nostradamus predicted the rise of Narendus.
The BJP IT cell is probably the closest we have to a war room feeding trolls and it works notoriously at the edge of the ethical ledge, committing the very falsehoods the PM now wants everyone to believe he is addressing. Couple that thought of a government that is not just post-truth, but anti-truth, with the fact that most people who perpetuate their agenda are perhaps the only ones without accreditation, and therefore stand to lose nothing by such a sanction… and you kind of get Mr Modi’s good cop ruse.
This pretence at swiping the knife past fake news, after having slit and stabbed real news, is too little, too late. If we’re actually serious about countering fake news, let’s begin where it really matters – in the factories that actively sit and manufacture them. Let’s begin with the active IT cells of political parties.