By Prarthana Mitra
The growing tide of nationalism and a lack of trust in mainstream media cause a lot of Indians to disseminate fake news received from unverified sources, revealed a recent study conducted by the BBC. The British media organisation undertook the study to find out why ordinary citizens would spread fake news, confirming suspicions that have long since pinned the menace to blind nationalism.
Trends, thoughts and intentions
Messages forwarded on WhatsApp were found to be mainly related to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, business and economy, Aadhaar, demonetisation, terrorism, and conspiracy theories. The study also examined in detail the recent spate of mob-lynchings and deaths by vigilante justice, fuelled by WhatsApp rumours warning people of potential child abductors, “out of a sense of duty to protect loved ones and communities.”
A worrisome consumption trend was observed. People were overly confident of their own ability to filter out fake stories and thus made little to no effort in trying to establish veracity of the orginal source of information received. Instead, they measured the authenticity of news on social media through metrics such as the number of comments it generated on Facebook, or through the quality of images shared. Furthermore, they relied on their interpersonal relations with the sender to assume to authenticity of the information received.
The recent doctored video of CNN journalist Jim Accosta, that was shared and endorsed by the White House, should give people an idea of how easy it is today to manipulate news reports. Media literacy, that is, the ability to critically and responsibly consume information through mass and social media thus becomes a necessary skill to see through the veneer of propaganda.
Nationalist strains of fake news
At a time when the BJP government spends millions on digital media campaigns and have been implicated on several counts of propagating fake news, it is not surprising that BBC’s report concluded that the right-wing networks were much more organised than those on the left. The study also found that a grim volume of fake news sources on Twitter overlapped with Modi’s support networks, a fact that has become a tacit and vocal aspect of public discourse.
For the purpose of this study, the BBC was given extensive access to incoming and outgoing media on phones of participants from India, Kenya, and Nigeria for seven days. The initiative formed a part of BBC World Service’s latest multi-platform project, Beyond Fake News, which aims to investigate the origin and effect of disinformation around the world.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer for Qrius.