When fake news has disastrous consequences

For Paresh Rawal, the possibility of Arundhati Roy making an anti-Army remark in an interview to a Pakistani portal seemed so real that he did not think twice before going on a Twitter offensive against the author.

The report - where she was quoted as saying 70 lakh Indian Army men could not defeat Kashmiris – turned out to be untrue.

But what made Rawal, whose tweet against Roy was seen by many as an incitement to violence, believe in it? Could he have checked the authenticity of the news? Can action be taken against false news? These are some questions that surfaced after Roy was trolled for what she never said.

With fake news on social media sites on the rise - the latest was on a bus with 40 school kids plunging into a gorge in Kashmir – a cross section of professionals spoke about the danger posed by the trend, and the mindset of the people behind it.

"In an angst driven world, the power of suggestion is very strong," Mumbai-based psychologist Dr Harish Shetty says.

People, he adds, are "gullible enough" to believe anything that sounds "close to the truth".

Often, such rumours can be fatal. A message on Whatsapp - which has 200 million active monthly users in India – on children being abducted led villagers in Jharkhand to lynch eight people. Fake news on social media sites fanned passions in violence-hit Saharanpur, prompting the government to withdraw internet services. In Kashmir, messages about atrocities by security forces have fuelled violence.

In troubled times, it is not easy to confirm - or deny - a post being shared as news. The Kashmir bus accident story, for instance, even stumped the police who took hours to check the report because of a breakdown in telephone lines.

But who are the people who start such rumours? And why do they do so?

"Perhaps, to hurt someone's reputation," says Sevanti Ninan, founder of the media watchdog portal, The Hoot.

Pratik Sinha of Alt News – which, along with a few other websites, often exposes fake news – says rumours are mostly driven by political propaganda, where unrelated videos are given a "local twist" to incite hatred or violence.

For instance, an old Guatemalan video featuring a girl being burnt alive was passed on as an incident of a Marwari girl married to a Muslim man being burnt to death for not wearing a burqa.

"By the time people are done reading the text, they are boiling with rage. They share it, believing it to be true," Sinha says.

Shetty explains that people who cook up misleading texts or videos are often fuelled by a desire to experience a certain "thrill" – the kind, he says, one would get by calling up a fire brigade when there is no fire.

"They want to feel the thrill. They want to cause trouble, stand there, watch, and have fun," Shetty adds.

With the deeper penetration of technology, particularly with mobile data getting cheaper, all it takes to start a rumour is a message on the social media.

Sinha cites the example of the lynching of a Bangladesh man, which was projected as a Hindu being killed by Muslims in West Bengal and shared over 37,000 times on Facebook. It is difficult for a person to question the authenticity of a piece of information that is being believed and shared by so many others, he adds.
"They can't be blamed. Not everybody can distinguish fake news from real," Sinha says.

But Ninan insists that people should be "suspicious" of what they read on the internet, because "they too should feel a sense of responsibility towards what they share."

Despite the potentially disastrous ramifications of fake news, cyber law expert and Supreme Court lawyer Pavan Duggal says the offence is of "low priority" for the police.

"There are no direct provisions against people spreading fake news under the IT Act," he says.


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