A man has fallen in love with the female voice giving station announcements for local Mumbai trains. An Indian engineering student demands PornHub on Free Basics as a precondition of his support for Facebook’s Free Basics campaign. Google has launched an application that alerts Internet users when their family members are within one meter, therefore reminding them that there are real people around with whom they should have conversations. These are all examples of fake news items, coming from the Indian Faking News website.
What about this? Arvind Kejriwal, a popular Indian politician and the current Chief Minister of India has sacked himself and then congratulated oneself on Twitter. “@arvindkejriwal I am proud of you” – he wrote. Likewise, an invented story, this time from The Unreal Times. Still, this fake news item does capture well the popular image of Kejriwal, a man who sets new standards for fighting corruption and introducing transparency, and who is also accessible to the public and very active in social media. Moreover, Kejriwal had in his previous tenure done something quite similar, having dissolved his government, albeit in different and peculiar conditions.
Fake news websites are growing in popularity in a number of countries. The best known in the U.S. – and perhaps globally – is The Onion. In Poland, the most popular site in this genre is Aszdziennik. In India, the two best known are Faking News and Unreal Times, with Faking News established as early as 2008.
Why write about fake news, invented and circulated by ordinary people, posted on self-made websites and circulated mostly on Facebook?
First of all, because they are not only hilarious, but like all good jokes, serve as a reaction to the surrounding world, a way of dealing with the world we live in by laughing at it. In “real” India, the famous Bollywood star Salman Khan will most probably not face consequences, although his car, which the actor was apparently driving while intoxicated, ran over and killed a poor man sleeping on the pavement. In other news from “real” India, a monkey was recently found to be driving a bus, which in turn resulted in it colliding with two parked vehicles. Now, the Faking News websites poignantly adds, the monkey will seek Salman Khan’s legal advice on avoiding punishment. In this case, let us observe, all the events were true; it is just the Faking News commentary about legal advice that is invented.
Second, because such pages are a satire not only on the news as such, but also on the changing nature of media. That is, the media’s growing tendency to exaggerate some events at the cost of others, run shocking and often misleading headlines to attract the attention of readers, focus on speed instead of content, rely increasingly on stringers and interns at the expense of good writing, and base an entire article on Internet content (for example, a war of words on Twitter) such that the journalist does not even need to open a book, let along leave his office. Add the alarming process of media triggering speculation and jumping to conclusions, and isn’t the “real” media in a way faking news as well, manipulating readers on a much greater scale then the fake news websites?
The satire sites are a very visible reaction to today’s media, traditional as well as electronic. They are structured in the same way, with catchy headlines accompanied by large photos. Another Polish site, Faktoid, until recently published weekly graphics that looked exactly like a tabloid front page, with deliberately clumsy wording, awkward expressions, funny or shocking photos, and headlines written in ridiculously large letters. For its part, Faking News has many times made reference to Indian media’s language, its manipulation, and its selectiveness. “With focus on DDCA [Delhi & District Cricket Association, recently charged with corruption] other cricket associations are upset that nobody is talking about their corruption,” it recently wrote.
A third reason to pay attention to the fake news websites is that very often they capture the essence of the processes we are witnessing. Indeed, the idea of faked news as such may simply be considered a continuation of a long global tradition of jokes, many of which are based on the “funny-but-so-true” concept. An “IT company introduces free alcohol on weekends to boost employee performances” – ran a recent Faking News headline. An entire corporate culture is summed up in one sentence.
The faked news websites do it so much that sometimes they could have been real as well. Both The Onion and the Aszdziennik have in the past published news presented as false that soon turned out to be real. Aszdziennik has in fact recently changed its branding from
“the best fake news in the country” to simply the “the best news in the country.”
Finally, the fake news websites are another curious case of the emergence of self-made people on the Internet: talented people often without any formal skills start running a website partially or entirely out of passion and end up earning money from it. As Rahul Roushan, the creator of Faking News describes it: “When I started a blog called Faking News in September 2008, I didn’t have any plan, let alone a business-plan.” However, Roushan added, he thought that he would “explore if there is any ‘demand’ for news-satire in India.” He continues, “more than that, whether I can ‘supply’ it (yes, I’m an MBA, and I’m sorry).” After two years he was “doing nothing else but Faking News.” His website was eventually acquired by Firstpost.
Finally, Indian forged news websites are of course an example of the Internet’s freedom of speech and an instance of the Indian sense of humor. The only risk is laughing too hard. One must remember, after all, the case of a couple, described by Unreal Times, who suffered “fractured jaws after smiling incessantly during their wedding reception.”