Fake news is real and here’s why you should care about it this election

If there’s one term that has defined politics and news media in the last year, it is fake news. Brought to the fore by US President Donald Trump’s repeated attacks on the news media and critics, fake news has come to play a role in India as well.

Are Indian politicians as intolerant of a genuine assessment as Trump? Who’s to say? Who’s to know? What, after all, is real and what is fake?

Propaganda laced with lies has flooded every area of citizens’ lives, especially in recent times, to such an alarming extent, that it’s become increasingly difficult to pick out the truth from that.

But what’s more worrying is how easily we have fallen prey to fake news, because that gullibility has claimed lives—fake news circulated on social media platforms, particularly WhatsApp, killed as many as 22 people over May to July 2018.

Cases in point

This is what happens when we start relying on messaging apps for news, instead of scouring for reliable sources. For example, the Dhule lynchings of five innocent men on the suspicion of being child-lifters.

Villagers in Dhule’s Rainpada hamlet, after watching a string of what were doctored videos on WhatsApp, had intercepted the victims, who belonged to the nomadic Gosavi community, and bludgeoned them to death on July 1, 2018. It later came to light that one of these videos was, in fact, a Karachi ad agency’s promotional clip on child safety, while another that showed a row of dead children was from Syria.

On April 1, 2017, Alwar’s Pehlu Khan fell prey to cow vigilantes, who lynched him over suspicion of dealing in beef; however, all he had been doing was transporting cattle.

Fake news did not spare even a former president—last June, an image of Pranab Mukherjee at a BJP-RSS event went viral; reason: in it, Mukherjee had the black RSS cap on his head and could be seen doing the Sangh’s traditional salutation, his right hand placed parallel to the chest with the palm facing downwards. After it came to light that the image was morphed, fingers were pointed at the party and the right-wing organisation for their “dirty tricks” and “false propaganda”.

Why fake news should be a poll issue

One of the pressing questions definitely is this: What’s more frightening, the fact that we seem to be an angry nation, easily triggered by the slightest, or how easy it is for someone to manipulate us into believing what they want?

But while collective anger management doesn’t seem feasible, stricter checks for sifting through everything that comes under ‘news’ these days can certainly be done.

In the aftermath of outrage, social media sites are trying to filter out fake news—Facebook is blocking fake accounts and deploying third-party fact checkers, YouTube says it’s monitoring content uploaded on it daily to weed out lies, and, early this year, WhatsApp decided to limit the number of forwards per message and has launched a fact-checking service, all in a bid to fight fake news.

And sites like AltNews are doing their bit to bust the myths and call out fake news. Doesn’t this tell you enough about the magnitude of the menace?

Yet, our political leaders remain silent, and their silence on this deepening problem is deafening.

Is it a silence of indifference or admission? Or is it a strategic silence for political profit?

Isn’t something that can make or break governments, spread hatred and violence, claim lives, or simply turn a neutral citizen into a cynic with trust issues worthy of being made an election agenda?

Priyanka Dharwadkar is a Senior Subeditor at Qrius

Fake News in IndiaLok Sabha Elections 2019