Breaking Down News: Truth or Snare

Breaking Down News: Truth or Snare

How social media (mis)shapes perceptions of war and the perils of being too real for reality TV

social media, reality tv, war coverage, aljazeera, madhu kishwar, breaking down news, indian express
How social media (mis)shapes perceptions of war and the perils of being too real for reality TV (Illustration: Subrata Dhar)

Until recently, newspapers had this macabre habit of keeping on file the obituaries of important people likely to shuffle off the mortal coil, to be warmed over when the Grim Reaper finally did the honours, and served hot off the press. This practice may not be limited to those in extremis, but also to those facing release in other contexts. Consider the rapidity with which some TV channels reacted to the Mecca Masjid case acquittals. Zee aired ‘I, Aseemanand’, asking how the taint of terrorism could possibly be found on the person of a “saint” and social worker. It offered the “truth about saffron terror, but first, the truth about Mecca Masjid.”

Meanwhile, with Russian warplanes being moved in response to the missile attacks on Syria, India TV confidently predicted World War III, with lots of archival footage of Russian ballistic missile launchers trundling across the steppe, and of the missiles launched against Syria by the US, UK and France. Some of which were clearly lifted off social media and could be fake.

Aljazeera’s forensics on fake news from Syria shows the extent to which the interplay of social media and news media has poisoned the well. The most widely watched video showing missile strikes in Syria last Saturday, telecast by corporations like NBC, PressTV and Telemundo, was actually an artillery barrage in Ukraine, uploaded in 2015. Another claimed to depict a strike on the Jamraya Research Centre in Damascus, which was actually carried out by the Israelis in 2013. And dramatic images of Syrian air defence shooting down missiles actually showed Saudi Arabian defences engaging incoming Houthi fireworks. The original was posted three weeks ago by Al-Arabiya news, which apparently got it from “unnamed sources”. Keen scrutiny of your WhatsApp folder may show that you got it, too, from the very same sources.

Official sources, too, have shown wide divergence over the attacks on Syria. The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab has noted this while analysing published images, but it has also highlighted the wide difference between the versions of the attackers and the Russians. The former declared to the press that only chemical weapon facilities were targeted. But the Russians claimed that five airfields including Damascus International Airport were attacked, and that it did not detect any French launches at all. Conflict usually generates competing narratives, but these two are diametrically opposed and the truth, it appears, belongs only to independent data sleuths.


If you go about in a white tee, your body will be propagandised. A rash of pictures of men in white T-shirts in various locations, including Istanbul airport, has broken out, their garments bearing Photoshopped messages asking if it is safe to send one’s daughters to India. The editing was bad but the timing excellent — the PM’s trip to northern Europe could have shone light on dark areas. As it turned out, the high point was Prasoon Joshi’s adulatory questions in London. Coincidentally, back home, Bhupendra Chaubey declared, “Let’s be clear, no other Indian politician can do what Narendra Modi can do with a TV audience. The setting, the language, the articulation — brilliant stuff.” Brilliant crowd control, actually. You keep out unruly elements of the crowd, like the Indian students in London who had arrived with hard questions about women’s safety, but were apparently kept out. But IMF managing director Christine Lagarde pitched in from afar, and the PM has finally proken his silence.

The Photoshopped images of white T-shirts did not make it to the mainstream, and encouragingly, few Indians were taken in. They included serial Photoshop victim Madhu Kishwar, who saw a dark Islamist plot to “demonise India in general and Hindus in particular”. This week, she was also the designated victim of Prashant Bhushan, who has filed a criminal complaint against her under Sections 153A, 295A and 505 of the Indian Penal Code, for using her Twitter handle to promote “hatred and ill-will” among her 2 million followers.

And on a lighter note, there’s the story of a Daily Mail Australia reporter who was sacked on Monday for writing the truth. She accidentally uploaded some verbal doodles in which she disparaged reality TV contestants as “vapid c***s”. Her editor Barclay Crawford has been taken to task by the Australian Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, which attributes the error to a lack of sub-editors. “It is inevitable that errors like this will be made when that vital extra layer of checking that comes from sub-editors is absent,” he was told, and offered the choice of reinstating the reporter or paying compensation for unfair dismissal. Sub-editors the world over, rejoice. The crucial role that these people play behind the scenes, to deliver the news day after day, has never been foregrounded in this manner. Not even back in the day, when extraordinary people like Rudyard Kipling were sub-editors.