That’s So 2018: The Year Fake News Became Deadly in India

Social Commentary

That’s So 2018: The Year Fake News Became Deadly in India

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Do you remember 2004, when we were encouraged to speak to strangers on social media, and all our news came strictly from the papers? Discussions on current affairs were idyllic back then. One party would say, “Did that just happen?” and the other would reply, “Yes, it did” and both would go back to listening to Britney Spears or whatever.

In the 15 years since, conversations about the news have become less small talk and more Battle of Thermopylae. It takes barely a few minutes for a discussion about politics to turn into trial by combat, with all participants pulling out 2018’s weapon of choice – vague-source-citing. This only ends when one concedes that the other has yelled louder, and leaves the argument dejected – but still determined to craft the Google search that eventually confirms his political views.  

Until they figure that out, the only beneficiary seems to be the fake news industry, which has been thriving so much in the last few years, the Congress will probably want to enter an alliance with it.

Gone are the days when the most dangerous fake news you’d read was “Swami Nithyananda cures migraines, but Congress cancelled it last minute.” It’s now so easy to distort videos, photoshop images, and take out-of-context screenshots, that even the most discerning reader can be manipulated into believing complete horseshit. Nevermind that a giant chunk of our country thinks the “forwarded” sign on WhatsApp, is an instruction for you to send along the message in question.

Fake news and WhatsApp go together like Ranveer Singh and Deepika Padukone – one is a volatile entity, and the other is willing to be married to it. Child abduction rumours on WhatsApp alone have claimed 30 lives this year and mobilised religious fanatics across the country faster than you can say “UNESCO”. Almost all political parties have admitted to having their own paid-for supporters (the PM follows his), who spend days coming up with headlines that’ll piss everybody off, and weeks posting them on all platforms without running spell check.

A exclusive!

And in turn, social media discourse has clearly gotten worse. These days the really obvious fake news isn’t enough, and no one likes their opinions being proved wrong. This has led to a more sophisticated fake news factory that even supposedly mainstream publications are having a hard time keeping up with.

Earlier this month, a farmer sent the ₹1,000 he made for his entire produce of 750 kg of onions harvested in the season to the PMO, as a form of protest. The next day an article surfaced, claiming that the Prime Minister had returned the money to the farmer and asked him to send it via online transfer. The article was published on a few websites, each containing the same hyperlinks, and quotes from “sources.” It took two days for someone to finally click on one of the dead links and realise that the article was faker than an election promise from a guy wearing a gold chain.

Other publications, like the Sunday Guardian, even have a fake news sub-header for their newspaper. This is not – as you would assume – a section devoted to fighting fake news, but for the actual publication of a fake article that claims that there was no rape in Kathua, as reported by News Laundry.

The paper’s editor calls this “literature”; we call it “WhatsApp”.

Now when journalists themselves fall prey to fake news or have no sense of responsibility for what to publish, it’s unfair for us to put all the onus on the untrained eye. Especially when very basic photoshop can turn an image of Rahul Gandhi standing near a Muslim man into “Rahul Gandhi converting to Islam”, or images of a Tibetan ritual get shared with the caption “Rohingyas eating Hindus!”

In the last year alone, we’ve been informed that Kamal Nath was Rajiv Gandhi’s driver, just because he was pictured sitting with the former PM once. We saw the Italian FIFA president give Narendra Modi a number “420” jersey, and were treated to Page 3 gossip about Nehru supposedly being a womaniser for kissing his niece.

The government responded by asking WhatsApp to come up with a technical solution to stop the spread of fake news, and by threatening to strip journalists accused of spreading fake news of their accreditation – which went into a dangerous loop of its own. But is that enough?

Today, buried between the personality quizzes, and dank memes, are fake headlines informing our views on almost everything. According to a BBC survey, we are notorious for falling for fake news about Narendra Modi, demonetisation, business and economy, Aadhaar, and the army and terrorism. The same survey (Beyond Fake News) points out that rising nationalism, scepticism about the pre-existing media, and the blurring of lines between news media are to blame.

So as we prepare for the onslaught of nationalism, vilification of the media, and blurring of lines that we call General Election 2019, we’re going to have to try extra hard to avoid falling prey to stupid rumours. Lock up your WhatsApp uncles if you have to and confiscate their phones. It’s ever so important today to remember the lesson Wikipedia taught us when we first got internet: Not everything you read online is true.