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The Oxford Dictionary has chosen “post-truth” as the word of the year for 2016. “Post-truth” is defined as a culture where “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.
However, I would argue that this is not a new culture. It has existed for centuries, as have the conflicts between news and fact. The desire to shape, influence and control public opinion is as old as humanity itself. We can think of the Acta Diurna as the world’s first news publication and Julius Caeser as the first news publisher in 59 BC. These were daily gazettes carved on metal or stone, featuring information of public interest such as minutes of the senate, the results of legal proceedings and particular trials. These were placed prominently in public places like the Forum in Rome.
The purpose was both to inform and remove the fuss of secrecy and obfuscation and to engage citizens and build a democratic spirit of open discourse. Other consuls who ruled Rome suppressed and censored this information; Caeser set it free. That is how he dealt with the post-truths of the senators.
The need to seek and share information and build communities is something we all possess. The connected world and the internet services this need at scale, delivering transparency and dramatically lowering entry barriers. This environment, where everyone is a publisher, presents both new opportunities and complex challenges for society. In our country, there are roughly 240 million smartphone users and over 500 million feature phone users. The Internet and Mobile Association of India estimates about 370 million internet users in our country — most of them are on mobile internet. This is a staggering community of people; all of diverse views and opposing tastes, combatants, families, friends, foes and critics, together inhabiting a world of facts and post-truths.
It is in this chaotic, complex, sociological and political sphere that different actors, including the internet and social media platforms, operate. Social media platforms are a modern-day Roman Forum. These platforms are agnostic wondrous architectures, enabling different forms and types of self-expression.
However, society and its conflicts manifest themselves in what has come to be known as “fake news” — and the internet does aid its rapid distribution. That is not the malaise of the internet or social media platforms, however. It is the actors, very often, competing political and other special interests which are producers of such content.
The South Asia region is home to several ethnic identities. We see the splendour of this varied cultural tapestry; at times, we also see conflicts. India has reflected these conflicts and contestations for ages but our democratic spirit and tradition have endured much more than identity discord. In August 2012, photos and cross-border propaganda material was misused and spread, sparking panic among people from the north-eastern region residing in Bangalore; the episode even caused a large-scale migration of people from the north-east back to their home states. Rumours were authenticated as “news” and these were published widely.
All that this event probably required was counter-speech — a strong rebuttal of the rumours and real-time reassurance to the affected people by the state, the community, newspersons and the media. The lasting and most powerful antidote to rumours, fake news and hate speech is more speech. That is the only meaningful enforcement that is sustainable — not bad legislation like Section 66A.
Recently, we have seen the police deploying these positive strategies for community policing. Earlier, in September this year, the Bangalore police actively used social media platforms to quell malicious rumours and fake news when the Cauvery river water-sharing verdict was announced by the Supreme Court.
The current climate also underscores the importance of independent fact-checkers; we are seeing the emergence of fact-checking websites in India. This is also a positive development. It will help nurture a culture of fact-checking and an atmosphere where each individual will be more rigorous in their assessment when engaging with different types of information on different media and diverse platforms.
There are four big trends that are playing out in this contemporary debate. First, there is universal recognition that political polarisation is getting sharper. Second, elections feel like a matter of life and death instead of a worthy democratic value and tradition. Third, consensus-building is becoming increasingly difficult and finally, there seems to be a tendency to revel in labelling; the line between prejudice and politics is becoming extremely blurred.
The spirit of the internet runs counter to all of this — it is about bringing people together, discovering ideas, unlocking opportunities and forming communities.
In this connected world, while we try and build all safeguards by investing in fact-checking tools and processes that prevent the spread of hate and fake news on the internet, ultimately we all have to think and reflect upon our own behaviour. We have to decide whether we want to build a Hobbesian world where a human being’s life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” or a world where we push the boundaries of openness, debate and integrity.
The latter is crucial for preserving the sanity and purity of fact.