It may well sound like an exaggeration today, but fake news is all set to be assuming epidemic dimensions in the not-too-distant future. For the last two or three months, not a single day has passed without the news of mob-lynching somewhere or other. And thanks to WhatsApp, which appears to have become a weapon in the hands of unscrupulous elements, false news is spreading fast and inciting gullible mobs to kill innocent passersby.
Beware of fake news swamp
Time was when one had only the print media to rely upon, which was (and is) regulated by clear and definite checks and balances. Even Letters to the Editors are duly edited. The identity of news reporters was known. And if, by any chance, errors, inaccuracies or misinterpretations crept into a report, rejoinders and refutations were published.
This situation continues even today. Even in the days of yore, there were publications which depended entirely on gossip, preferably the spicy variety, for their bread and butter. And, as most of the news they carried related to baseless allegations, quite literally, the adage ‘truth is the first casualty of war’ (attributed to Hiram Johnson, the American Senator, in the early 20th century) became applicable to what they published.
As a consequence, they faced frequent litigations, with their editors even being jailed from time to time. A small section of the readers patronised them for the sake of entertainment and passing time, and never believed what they carried. As a consequence, the publications had very limited circulation and even less respectability.
Even after the advent of television in India, the Door Darshan (DD) ruled the roost for a considerable amount of time, and being under the control of the government, rarely went anywhere near juicy news or controversial matters. There was no need for them to worry about viewership and advertisement revenue. It is only for the last 30 years or so that we have seen the entry of private channels into the arena, channels for which the commercial element is primary. And their whole existence revolved round Television Rating Points (TRPs) and they are doing no stone unturned or no news ungarnished to improve the ratings.
And, in the process, it must be conceded, the regulatory aspect has also been more or less relegated to the background. Though, in theory, a case exists for self-regulation, it has yet to catch up in practice. Much more importance is being attached now-a-days to the speed of reporting rather than its accuracy, with an eye on increased viewership which fast news attracts. Even if the full story is not ready, the channels run ‘scrolls,’ often alluring but misleading, just to retain eyeballs. As a result, there is little time to investigate into the accuracy of the stories being telecast. And all channels are vying with one other in pepping up otherwise dull, routine news items.
Originally, in the case of print media, publications were started on account of the love for journalism or spreading knowledge. With time, however, the emphasis shifted to viewing publications as a source of money-making and part of business. These days, publishers have a greater say than editors and the business interests of publishing house often exaggerate and twist facts to suit political ends. Such reports rarely carry the name of the reporter and expressions such as “informed sources” or “sources which declined to be identified” are freely used. And on several occasions, news and views are cleverly mixed up and presented as news.
It was in such an atmosphere, that the Internet websites and magazines were born. Since operational costs were less, there was no need for them to worry about ad revenue or the patronage of the local government. Since physical presence was not needed in the state or country, they had no fear of assault by irate mobs or political goons. So, they wrote without fear or favor attracting readers all over the world.
There was thus a sudden spurt in net users, and e-magazines grew from strength to strength for about a decade-and-a-half. Again, no one had any regulatory authority over these e-magazines which more or less put out whatever they pleased – sometimes with ulterior motives. Anyone could start a blog and write whatever they wanted about whomever they chose.
With no one to edit the content, indiscriminate allegations supported by morphed photographs became the order of the day. Gradually people came to the conclusion that news from websites needed to be taken with a pinch of salt. Fortunately, however, the Internet facility was and is, in view of its high-cost, available to a restricted few, and such activity impacted only a small number of people.
But then came the era of the smart phones. Even ordinary villagers started using it and WhatsApp that goes with it. Images and messages are being transmitted with no cost and great speed and it is being thoroughly misused these days.
It has now become quite common for us to come across fake news stating that the statue of such and such a national leader has been disfigured or, for that matter, the national flag is insulted by so-and-so at such and such a place. For effect, they are accompanied by an old or doctored photograph and this creates panic and anger among persons belonging to different sections of society or religious faiths.
More recently, reports have surfaced pertaining to alleged kidnapping of children and theft of their vital organs after putting them under the influence of narcotic substances. As a result, suspected child-lifters are being attacked and even killed by mobs. Since May, 30 people have been killed in such incidents, in none of which care was taken to establish whether the suspect was actually guilty or not.
The assaults took place merely on the basis of rumors and suspicion alone. But the point is that the fear sown in the minds of such mobs by fake news is being nourished and supported by WhatsApp messages. As a result, technology, whose growth is supposed to dispel darkness, is actually serving the purpose of spreading it!
Fake news, particularly in the form of unsubstantiated rumours which cause panic among the general public, plays a much more dangerous role in the wake of the occurrence of natural disasters and riots. Exaggerating the number of casualties, creating false news about the nature and extent of the damage in affected villages or towns, or, (as happened in the case of Hyderabad some decades ago), spreading alarming messages about the fictitious breaching of the bund of a major reservoir results in widespread in disorder and disturbance.
And when people desert their homes in panic, pillage follows as it is the original purpose of such mischief. For relief and rehabilitation activities to be carried on smoothly, it is necessary for the public to remain confident and have faith in the administration. Every person should be encouraged to do his bit.
If, on the other hand, panic strikes, no amount of force can bring the situation under control, even if armed forces are deployed. If the Internet is stopped, out of the fear that fake news is creating chaos, the flow of information itself suffers. The solution, therefore, lies in efficient filtering of the news, and controlling the spread of false messages through use of modern technology.
The sooner such technology is employed the better, as General Elections are round the corner and there is likely to be a manifold increase in the (mis)use of this powerful instrument.