I was 12 when my principal gave us the news, on the public announcement system that the school is shutting down for the day owing to the reports of danger in the city. It was the day of the Babri Masjid demolition but the principal did not mention that in her announcement. We packed our bags and waited as panic-stricken parents arrived to take us home. With both my parents working, I knew my wait would be longer than others who either lived close-by or had a parent who would come pronto. I remember being one of the last ones waiting, sitting beside the principal, who ensured that every child went home safe.
I asked her for more information. She had then introduced me to the idea of an afwaa (rumour). She said she had heard from unverified news sources that there was trouble in New Delhi, and it was on such a big scale that we in Ahmedabad were in danger, too. I pushed her to tell me more but she refused to give details. “I don’t have enough information. This is not news. This is a rumour. And when we get a rumour, we don’t spread it. We keep it to ourselves. We verify it. We ask the government and the news, and once we have facts, then we repeat it.” I learned about what had transpired later in the day when I saw the news on Doordarshan with my family.
The next day Ahmedabad was engulfed in communal violence and rumours abounded. We were going to be killed. Food in shops is going to disappear.
Crowds are targeting us. The couple of Muslim families in the housing complex are harbouring violent criminals. I saw all of it unfolding in real time, puzzled at why nobody waited to verify the information. I saw the community creating barricades. I saw the Muslim families pack their valuables and leave. I saw the police patrols marshal our streets. I saw longstanding family friends fall out over unverified news. I remember being horrified hearing about rivers of blood and mountains of skulls, as the fires spread across the country. We didn’t need WhatsApp and Facebook to spread fake news. Even in those days of comparative disconnectedness, we had enough channels through which misinformation filtered into our everyday lives. This fake news found home with us not because we were gullible, mal-informed, or did not have the capacity to verify the information. It stayed with us and changed our lives because we wanted to believe that information. It told us what we had already been conditioned to believe. Fake news found our address because we were taught how to hate, and it fuelled a collective hatred.
In the face of the forthcoming elections, social-media giants are gearing up to contain the onslaught of fake news that is going to amplify polarised political agendas. There are many technological controls being devised. India was already one of the first countries where WhatsApp restricted the number of groups/people we can share information with in one go. Forwarded messages are tagged with that label. Unverified links come with a warning. Even as political-marketing teams find ways of using the churning social-media newsfeeds with slanted and biased material, these digital-content companies are working hard to identify political advertisements and hate speech. While these measures are commendable, it is worth remembering that these attempts at controlling shared news habits of 40 per cent Indians have not stopped fake-news cycles leading to WhatsApp killings and inciting people towards violence.
It is necessary to hold these social-media channels accountable as not just information-delivery vehicles but as content-creation and -curation platforms. At the same time, relying on them to come up with solutions — even though these solutions are contradictory to their profits and proliferation — is clutching at straws in the face of floods. The technological infrastructure, short of a complete blackout, and a regime of extreme censorship are never going to be able to curb the tide of fake news. Hateful information and manipulated news streams are going to find their way to us. Whether they stay and shape our lives is going to depend on how ready we are to hate. Because no amount of correction and control is going to stop fake news from becoming welcome guests that feed off our naturalised forms of hatred and violence.
Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bengaluru.
This article appeared in print with the headline: Digital Native: Checks and Balances