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Viral attack of 'fake news'

Viral attack of fake news

In the past weeks, the amount of online fake news that has been circulated during the final months of the Presidential race is coming to light. It is a disturbing revelation that threatens to undermine the country's democratic process. We're already seeing some real-world consequences. And, like many countries, India is also witnessing a proliferation of spurious websites passing off hoaxes and conspiracy theories as news. But even more than in the United States, fake news is seeping into the national conversation as politicians and a credulous news media seize on reports that glorify the country and bash its critics. It is no surprise at all that the mischief mongers keep fishing in troubled waters round the clock. At a time when an India-Pakistan cricket match leads to a flurry of fake photographs of Muslims celebrating Pakistan's victory, a communal disturbance is ripe - further heightened by morphed photographs and old images packaged as breaking news. This happened recently in Basirhat and Baduria in West Bengal, where communal disturbances were ignited with the circulation of fake photographs and videos. Many of the fake stories go viral because they easily advance the communal agendas of different religious fanatic groups. Several citizen-journalism initiatives have sprung up to combat fake news, but they face an uphill battle. The stories ricochet through echo chambers on Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp messaging platform, which incidentally has more than 200 million users in India. They also find a receptive audience on mainstream news channels.

Interestingly, no single party or ideology has a monopoly on fake news in India, but the media houses – particularly news channels – prefer to take sides. Last year, some TV channels aired reports of a speech in which Kanhaiya Kumar, a student who had been jailed for sedition after leading protests at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, called for 'azadi', or freedom, a slogan used by Kashmiri separatists. While a graphic on one of these news channels read 'Hear Kanhaiya's 'seditious rant,' in the full speech, Kumar is seen calling for freedom from hunger, communalism, economic inequality, the caste system and other social ills. However, it didn't bother the channels to retract their report – based on a doctored video. India has a vibrant free press with several well-respected English and vernacular newspapers. But an explosion of satellite channels and websites has diluted the quality of reporting within the media. Much of the mainstream media now lack the skills, resources and public trust to debunk fake news. Surprisingly, even mainline media outlets — including TV news channels with significant viewership — are willing to peddle half-baked rumours as facts. Such posts project a negative image of a community or an individual. These circulations have coincided with the burning political issues of the day. The intent behind such activities is clear. The service providers too cannot absolve themselves from moral responsibilities regarding the contents of such footage and their ramifications on the social fibre of a country. It is time that the government steps in and ensures that social media platforms actively help trace and delete such malicious content. We need to look at the legislation aspect of such issues because our existing cyber laws do not yet have enough provisions to deal with new and emerging threats. Especially because India is seeing a smart phone boom and almost everybody is hooked on social media. The alarming fact is that social media is being used to spread hate, divisive agenda and incite social unrest. In the current scenario, it is high time the legislators step in to ensure that the integrity of the land is maintained. Communication ideally involves give and take of useful information, but there is always a possibility of someone becoming a victim of misinformation. As a result, humans exercise what the authors call 'epistemic vigilance'. For example, when the new information we receive does not fit well with our old information and beliefs, we have to choose between rejecting the old beliefs and discarding the new information. Epistemic vigilance often makes us go for the latter, simpler option. The most dangerous stories play on India's political and religious divisions. So, nothing is new with the hoaxes, technology has simply aggravated it. In India for now, where any enlightened individual who champions peaceful arguments and discourse is made to suffer bullying and physical violence, we perhaps can't expect any sort of 'cognitive revolution' on these lines for some time at least. But for those who do wish to make the nation a more peaceful place, this is great food for thought, it seems!

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