With the country heading for elections in 2019, this edition of IE Thinc looks at the possible impact of fake news. Will the crisis worsen? Will fake news sway opinion and decide electoral fortunes? On the panel are Ashutosh, former TV journalist and former AAP leader; Chandra Mani Shukla, Executive Council Member of the platform Indian Political Action Committee (I-PAC); Jency Jacob, Managing Editor of the fact-check portal Boom; Tom Goldstein, founding Dean and Professor with Jindal School of Journalism and Communication; and Sudha Pai, political scientist. The discussion was moderated by Seema Chishti, Deputy Editor, The Indian Express.
The big concerns relating to fake news
Tom Goldstein: In the very loose use of the term, United States President Donald Trump has defined fake news as something he thinks is not accurate, something negative towards him — that is far from being intentionally false. Last week, in a tweet, Trump wrote, ‘A very big part of the Anger we see today in our society is caused by the purposely false and inaccurate reporting of the Mainstream Media that I refer to as Fake News’. I watch a lot of news and I am hard-pressed to single out stories that are purposely false and inaccurate. When asked for specifics, Trump ducked the question. What is he talking about? It is not the media that is irresponsible, it is he who is irresponsible and he is getting away with it… One reason that Trump — and by extension other demagogues in other countries — is so effective that he skilfully exploits long-standing conventions that govern the media. He puts in a blatantly absurd accusation about mainstream media out there. There is no single individual or group of spokespeople of the media of equal weight to Trump to refute the charge. So his relentless dishonesty works.
‘Fake news’ shimmers with double meaning. There is not so much news falsifying reality as this news about false claims. He scapegoats the news, a very old tactic — trying to kill the messenger. We would all with be better off if we dropped the use of the confusing phrase ‘fake news’.
The responsibility of the messenger
Ashutosh: We need to understand the context in which fake news has become so important today, and it can impact elections. From 2013 onwards, when Narendra Modi was elected the prime ministerial candidate, a lot of things have been happening on social media. And once he has become the PM, this country has been continuously at war. There is a war over who can manipulate minds and capture minds, who can manipulate people to vote on their behalf. In that sense, the BJP or Hindutva-wadi forces have been consistent on this. The other forces, who should be challenging them, have woken up very late. Now it is like an even kind of thing. Now there is fake news from the left-liberal side —Congress, Left and others — and there are challenges from the other side also. Before 2014, there was only left-of-the-centre media, now there is right-of-the-centre media also. It is a fight between these two ideologies which is creating so much tension, which is creating so much fake news, because both of them are trying to manipulate minds with a political intent to affect elections. We have to understand this. Otherwise fake news is not new. Fake news has suddenly become so important, as rightly said, thanks to Mr Trump.
The challenge of spotting fake news from multiple sides
Jency Jacob: Six months back if you had asked me this question, I would have said yes, the right wing was dominating the narrative. Now, there is an increase in the number of Facebook pages and Twitter handles coming up who are bringing in that narrative from the other side as well. So there is no more a right versus left in terms of who is dominating it. There is a pattern where both sides have realised that you have to capture the minds of voters very early, before elections come closer. Over the last two months, I have seen pages generating 15 lakh followers, 20 lakh followers. Now, where are these pages coming from? So there is clearly a market for these kinds of stories, images and videos that are being put out, and each post has a large number of shares. People are blindly sharing it because it clearly appeals to their thought processes and ideologies; they don’t even bother to check whether there is any reality in it or not. It is a serious problem that we will realise only when something like a lynching incident happens. That is when the government woke up and questioned why WhatsApp is being misused to put out these images and videos that are resulting in people dying. Unfortunate as it may sound, until something like that happens, I don’t think people are realising what is happening on the platform.
Why this technology appeals to the voter
Sudha Pai: We need to look at both political parties and society. Parties mobilise along the lines of social cleavages, and as a result they create polarisation, differences, othering of communities. Political parties have been very responsible for this; that is where fake news finds a very fertile ground. There is heightened competition, parties will do anything to win, and use of social media has become very important. Parties do data mining; from that data they make messages, which are then sent to various regions depending on the kind of messages, and therefore you influence voter behaviour.
Why are people consuming it? We are living in a post-globalisation situation where there is a very consumerist ideology; you consume news — and pass it on… Society today, in this post-globalisation period, is also a process where there is a lot of anxiety, a lot of aspiration. For example, there is disappointment that there are no jobs, and the farmer thinks his son is going to become a saab but ultimately he doesn’t get anything — these people are very receptive to fake news. There is also consumer bias. If you read a bit of news and it goes with your ideas, you don’t vet it and pass it on. And then there is a cascading effect. Journalism of a particular kind has also contributed.
Whether professionals who deal with political parties are playing on this
Chandra Mani Shukla: We see it [the work by professionals] as increasing the efficiency and bringing structure to the outreach that the party is doing, whether online or offline. We see it as bridging the gap between the leader and the masses. We see it as professionals going on the ground and interacting with voters, understanding what their aspirations are, coming up with the right manifesto which can become part of the incoming government’s priorities. In terms of the social media tools, use or misuse depends on which hands the tools fall into. Tools can either be unstructured or structured — let’s talk about the unstructured part and where it comes from. There are followers of all parties which spread misinformation, whether or not it is in the knowledge of the leader. Over the last two years, when these instances have come to the light, all platforms — Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp — have taken certain measures where it becomes very difficult to make bots and fake accounts or to disseminate misinformation centrally, and we have a certain amount of awareness with fact-checking sites coming up, with media groups helping out with regular fact-checking facilities. With all of these, the role of professionals in politics does not tie to increasing the availability of fake news in the market.
Whether putting out facts can act as a counter to fake news
Tom Goldstein: The press, at least in the United States, has been too timid. They have been terrified of those in power, who are getting away with stuff. They have got to fight back and get the truth out. It is not going to be easy, but I think… the Press Council of India — I don’t know how effective it is — the United States does not have one; it should.
If the business of good news will eventually flush out fake news
Ashutosh: Fake news distribution and dissemination is done from the top. There are offices, money is spent, people are recruited, and everyday it is monitored and a report is sent to the top management. Accordingly the fake news is generated and sent. Secondly, it is not Facebook but WhatsApp that has become very important these days. WhatsApp has become more dangerous than Facebook because WhatsApp is not a public platform. Someone is getting the information, he has no way to check it up, he just reads it and gets inside. From my experience, political parties are majorly focusing on WhatsApp.
About good and bad journalism — we have seen in the last few months that a few fake news instances came up on a TV channel and there was a discussion on this. This doesn’t mean that journalism has gone astray. In fact, now people are not relying on social media but are relying more on reliable sources. Good journalism will prevail as people understand the game-plan of these people.
When dark information comes one-to-one rather than on a public platform
Jency Jacob: Between September and October, every time we did a fact-check story, we also tagged the piece of misinformation that is on the platform itself, so that Facebook’s algorithm could kill the distribution. There is some amount of work going around in Facebook. WhatsApp is one big problem. We figured out that between WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook, there is a very clear cycle of information that goes around… The reason why you won’t see a lot of verified handles pushing out some of the stuff is because they are worried that they can be caught. As far as WhatsApp is concerned, it’s an open game.
Yes, it is important to put out facts. All those verified handles of ministers who used to put out data without checking it, every time we have called them out, they have realised that there are people who are checking them and they have actually reduced the number of data points they are putting out. That’s one good thing that has happened due to this fact-checking universe. As far as WhatsApp is concerned, I don’t really think anyone of us have figured out what the solution to that is.