If our descendants a hundred years in the future were to look back on the news of this week, they would generally agree that the most important story must have been Nasa’s report that the world’s fourth-biggest ice shelf is now the fifth-biggest. The Antarctic promontory called the Larsen C Ice Shelf has suddenly lost a hefty chunk of its area, a dramatic early symptom of the rise in sea levels and the shrinking of nations to come. The coastlines of the future could be lined by thousands of sunken cities, spanking new Dwarkas and Dwarasamudras.
This should have been the biggest news globally, but wasn’t. The other big news made the headlines for purely imaginary reasons: China’s Micius project has demonstrated entanglement, the quantum phenomenon which Albert Einstein called “spooky action at a distance”, over a very considerable distance — from here to earth orbit.
They teleported a photon from earth to a satellite, and most of the headlines seemed to assume that science fiction had become science fact. However, the success of Micius does not mean that you will be able to teleport your mother-in-law into orbit next year. Your mother-in-law won’t be able to teleport you either. You’ll just have to continue learning to live with each other.
What this discovery will do, however, is to accelerate the quest for a quantum internet using quantum computers, which would be able to store, process and transmit huge volumes of data almost instantaneously. In short, no more lag on our phones as we pass the time reading fake news and “forwarding as received”. Which is about the dumbest thing you can do, since it tells the next recipient that you don’t have the brains to make sense of what you’re reading.
But let us not be too distracted by news about catastrophic changes far in the future. In the present tense, we are naturally more interested in the temporary uproars in progress in our immediate vicinity. And some of them are indeed fascinating. Once upon a time in West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee had gone after a university teacher with a Facebook account and a satirical sense of humour. That was about the most laughable case of misuse of Article 66A of the Information Technology Act in 2012, apart from the arrest of two girls in Thane, for daring to question a Shiv Sena lockdown.
But now, the police in Banerjee’s state are securing non-bailable warrants against BJP functionaries for posting fake images on social media, to amplify sectarian violence. A BJP IT cell in West Bengal has already seen an arrest.
These BJP members have actually been as stupid as the forwarded-as-received wallahs (often, they are the same person). They persisted in posting and forwarding fake news long after it was outed — one was a still from a Bhojpuri potboiler. Their posts began to be taken down only after the first arrest. Which tells us something about the culture of impunity in which fake news flourishes.
While sites like AltNews are being far more immediately useful than their kin on the other side of the planet, like Snopes, they can only call out fakery designed to widen differences in society. But the fake news epidemic can be stopped only if the state strips the armour of impunity off fakers.
While India is being divided by the news, it is bringing the US print industry together. An oped in the Wall Street Journal by the chief executive of the broad-spectrum News Media Alliance is the first salvo in a struggle to gain bargaining rights in the unequal contest between traditional media houses and the kings of new media, Facebook and Google.
Silicon Valley has moved the goalposts, the astroturf and the umpire and, though they make soothing noises to placate newspapers, they now own the revenue pipe. The creators of news are working on leaner budgets than the purveyors of news, which will degrade its quality over time. We can already see the effect of tight spending on the quality of Indian television.
This week, home minister Rajnath Singh had his statesmanlike moment, and was trolled by his own side for it. Responding to a particularly vicious tweet saying that no one cares about Kashmiriyat any more, and that it is time to “cull” the state’s population, Singh emphatically replied, “I care.”
He is used to being trolled as “Ninda-ji”, “Ninda Mama” and “Ninda Turtle” for his standard response to atrocities — “kadi ninda” — but he must have felt blindsided by the poison gas spewed at him from his own trenches.Fakery and trollery make it hard to identify reality these days. But the sharpest minds figure things out quite easily. To quote Stephen King, “The news is real. The president is fake.” That’s a short, sharp masterclass.