When U.S. President Donald Trump began crying “fake news,” and prime time news slots in India began to hold debates on photoshopped WhatsApp forwards, we knew post-truth times had truly arrived. But as is the nature of governments, it took some time for the arrival of fake news to register with the government of India.
On April 2, India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (I&B) woke up to the “increasing instances of fake news in electronic and print media” in the country, and released a circular announcing amendments to guidelines that the Press Information Bureau (PIB) follows while granting accreditation to journalists.
In less than a day’s time, the circular was withdrawn at the direction of Narendra Modi’s Prime Minister’s Office.
During the 15 hours between the circular’s issuance and its withdrawal, the discussion around fake news in India kick-started to a frenzy — beginning with criticisms of the circular itself.
For a government that has its own legacy of fake news, the circular fired on all the wrong cylinders. It issued an authoritarian threat to journalists, ordering suspension of their accreditation for 15 days as soon as a complaint accusing them of creating or propagating fake news was registered, without even first determining its legitimacy. For a journalist, to lose their accreditation means losing access to government buildings, archives, and important decision-makers.
While the Indian Constitution guarantees its citizens the fundamental right to speech and expression (Article 19), it does not explicitly provide for the freedom of the press, unlike in other mature democracies of the world, where press freedom is a constitutionally protected right. The First and Fourth Amendments in the United States, for example, protect the rights of journalists to write, probe, criticize, debate, and contest freely the head of the state — who currently happens to be the very man who’s brought fake news to the limelight it enjoys today.
On the World Press Freedom Index of May 2017, India ranked 136th on a list of 180 countries. The South Asian nation was placed even lower than the conflict-struck Palestine. According to the report, journalists in the subcontinent were less free than 135 other countries because of the rising nationalism under the National Democratic Alliance government, and the fear of “online smear campaigns” launched by radical nationalists, who also turn out, in many instances, to be internet trolls.
The circular’s misgivings didn’t end there. In addition to policing journalists who already self-censor due to fears of the state, it also targeted the wrong people.
In the evolution of fake news since November of 2016 when the United States picked Donald Trump as president, these two words — fake news — have come to encompass many ends: propaganda tool, self-defense mechanism, or money making scheme.
Fake news is, in effect, the offspring of an unholy marriage between propaganda and advertising money.
Fake news is a bit of a misleading term, believes Pankaj Jain, one of India’s most active fake news slayers: “Fake news can mean many things – a mistake, intentional misleading, twisting a news story, or fabricating a complete lie.”
“In the past while media houses and credible journalists have been found to put out misleading stories and/or mistakes, the most damage is done by people, fake social media profiles, polarizing websites and pages which spread fake news intentionally for garnering votes and spreading hate,” Jain says.
Out of all the channels through which fake news spreads, Jain, whose initiative, Social Media Hoax Slayer, blows the lid off of false information being passed around social media platforms, feels the biggest culprit is the instant messaging app, WhatsApp.
Fake news going around in WhatsApp circles is most likely to spread and affect people, as Jain explains: “Most of our population from the villages, or with access to cheap data but no formal education, are users of WhatsApp, not Facebook or Twitter.”
SM Hoax Slayer joins other media watchdogs in India, like The Hoot, Alt News and Newslaundry, that keep a close watch on mainstream media’s coverage of news events and expose their biases, motivations, and affiliations.
Fake videos circulated on WhatsApp have snowballed into riots (the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013, for example, actually began with a fake video which was floated by a member of the Legislative Assembly from the then-opposition and now ruling party in India, the Bharatiya Janata Party, or the BJP), mass actions, and in some instances, prime time debates on television, and anchor stories in daily newspapers. So much so, that “WhatsApp journalism” has taken off as a category in itself.
A deeper concern here, however, is who manufactures news that can potentially be picked up as clickbait-y headlines, and why do they do it?
Sensational headlines, which scream at the audience to get viewers and entice readers to click through to dubious websites, are a money-making tool. The same people who tirelessly forward “Good Morning” messages to their WhatsApp circles and clog up the internet are the same people who, mostly innocuously, also help to peddle fake news.
However, there are noninnocuous characters, too, in this tale. An editor of the news website Postcard News was recently arrested in the south Indian city of Bengaluru for promoting hatred between religious groups by carrying the picture of a monk injured in an accident, and passing it off as the result of an attack by a Muslim youth. The editor, interestingly, is followed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Twitter, even though Postcard News has been repeatedly called out as a hoax-generating portal, frequently used by BJP ministers and supporters to strike up communal tensions.
The I&B ministry’s circular, had it stood unrevoked, would have been powerless against these hate-mongers, since they’re not accredited journalists. In fact, only journalists who are assigned by their media houses to cover parliament generally go for accreditation by the government body.
If Not Accredited Journalists, Where Does Fake News Come From?
The I&B Ministry failed to recognize that fake news isn’t the work of an accredited journalist as much as it is a function of WhatsApp forwards and Facebook posts. Fake news is more likely to stem from a Photoshop artist; a politician who goes into the hinterlands and makes speeches without fact-checking them; and the intermingling of a public relations group, market strategists, and often a dire step toward damage control (or damage creation).
Even so, fake news isn’t at its most potent when it shows Narendra Modi working as a floor sweeper. The bigger danger is when, for example, fake news wrongly attributes statements calling for Azaadi (freedom) for Kashmir to someone like Arundhati Roy. Critics of the government thus often find themselves becoming targets for trolls, fake news, and misguided social media outrage.
The task before policymakers now is to draw up legislation to clamp down on the fake news that is funded by the government itself and its affiliates for electoral currency. In a democracy, where the media plays the role of the proverbial fourth pillar — a conscience keeper, as it were — in addition to the institutions of the executive, legislative, and judiciary, it is also strong enough to hold its own and engender a discourse against fake news from within itself.
StoriesAsia is a collective of independent journalists from across South and Southeast Asia.