Fake news is very much in the news following the results of the American election. Among the many fake news reports aimed at damaging Hilary Clinton’s chances were claims that she had suffered brain damage, that she was an alcoholic and a drug addict, and that she had a long-term hidden Lesbian relationship. So damaging was the fake news that many believed it had influenced the result of the election. So widespread was this belief that Facebook and Google have now promised to take action against fake news sites. Mark Zuckerberg, the co-founder of Facebook, dismissed the idea that fake reports influenced the election as crazy but he did admit there was more that could be done to curb fake news and promised “to improve further”.
German chancellor Angela Merkel does not think it’s crazy to think that fake news can influence election results. Speaking after she announced that she would seek election for the fourth time, she said that public opinion was being manipulated on the internet and warned of the power of fake news on social media to spur the rise of populism.
Last week I learnt of the Indian government’s concern about fake news when I got a surprise telephone call from the minister for information and broadcasting, Venkaiah Naidu. He asked gruffly, “Did you write the report which is on social media in your name?” “No,” I replied firmly. “It is nakli, or fake.” I then pointed out that two earlier nakli reports attributed to me had gone viral on social media. I had informed the government and the then ruling Congress party but heard no more. The minister said: “The government is having trouble with false reports on the social media and I am seeing what can be done about it.”
All three nakli reports in my name supported the BJP and attacked the Congress. The latest report ends: “[T]he time has come to continue to support the man (Narendera Modi) and keep your faith intact and we will see the new India for sure — bigger, better, stronger, corruption free, peaceful, prosperous than (sic) before with people having better quality of life” (sic). In one of the earlier reports the language used to disparage Sonia Gandhi would be unprintable in any reputable newspaper. I got a large number of e-mails asking me about the reports. Many but not all didn’t believe I had written them and only asked for confirmation. But some did think they were authentic, a few even congratulated me. The fact that people could believe such obvious fakes were genuine indicates the power of fake news.
There is nothing new about the power and danger of fake news in India. It is a matter of degree. The rumour mill or the bush telegraph was used to spread fake news long before anyone imagined the social media. But effective though that traditional method still is it can’t compare with the rapidity and extent of the spread of fake news on social media.
One well-documented reason for concern about the role of fake news in India is the role it plays in communal violence. A particularly significant case is recorded by the American political scientist Paul Brass. In his book The Production of Hindu Muslim Violence in India he describes the impact of a lie deliberately spread during the Aligarh riots in December 1990 and January 1991, in which The People’s Union for Civil Liberties estimated between 125 and 150 people were killed. On December 10 the influential Hindi paper Aaj published under banner headlines a fake news story that 28 patients were killed in the hospital of Aligarh Muslim University”. Brass says “it is generally accepted that rioting, particularly attacks by Hindu mobs on Muslim persons and property intensified after that date”.
The Aligarh incident is significant because the rumour was spread by a well-established newspaper. In doing so Aaj undermined the credibility of the press as a whole. If we journalists are to survive in the welter of rumour and fake news that the social media spawn we have to be the one source to which people can turn to discover what is actually happening. We must cherish old-fashioned news values, and recognise that our unique selling point is credibility.
I can only say that I am at least glad that the originators of the fake reports attributed to me which have gone viral online have done such a botched job that many people from the minister down doubted the reports were authentic. If the reports had been more credible, less absurd, my credibility would have been severely damaged.
The views expressed are personal