Nikhil Pahwa, founder of digital news site Medianama.com, hadn’t anticipated a packed house at his event on Fake News, Rumours and Online Content Regulation held in New Delhi last week. Clearly, the topic touched a raw nerve among stakeholders who turned out in significant numbers and included journalists, publishers, lawyers and political aides, among others. An open house discussion ensued where participants made attempts not only to define fake news but threw up ideas on statutory means to stall or contain it.
Fake news is basically associated with a lie or planting false stories. The fact that fake news and social media are intertwined cannot be overemphasized. To be sure, fake news can have far-reaching repercussions as it is being effectively used for propaganda by political parties. According to a political aide present at the event, manufacturing fake news is a well-oiled machine churning out false propaganda. This apparently works on a trial and error basis, as the manufacturers of such news keep an eye on what works and what doesn’t and tweak their strategies accordingly. Political propaganda could be employed to pull someone down or enhance someone’s image.
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The story about surveillance chips in the new Rs2,000 notes that went viral when the note was launched in November 2016 was repeatedly cited during the discussion as a prime example of fake news in India. The example also found its way into a story by The Guardian in the UK titled “Fake news: an insidious trend that is fast becoming a global problem". The Guardian story said that after India’s Prime Minister announced the introduction of a new Rs2,000 note, “phones around the country lit up with the news the bill would come installed with a surveillance chip, linked to a satellite that could track the notes even 120 metres underground. The claims, debunked by the country’s reserve bank, nonetheless spread like fire over WhatsApp—which has more than 50 million users in India—and migrated into mainstream news." Unfortunately, a Hindi news channel did telecast a story based on this unverified piece of information.
Maheshwar Peri, former president and publisher of Outlook group and founder of Careers360 magazine and portal, feels it’s important to distinguish between rumours and fake news. “There are a billion rumours and we as a society cannot control them…But a rumour when covered by a news organization without making any effort to check its authenticity is fake news," he says. To be sure, fake news is not a recent phenomenon. It has been in existence for a long time. However, what has changed is the way it spreads. Both its creation and distribution mechanisms have changed, altering its impact, which is often immediate and widespread.
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Today, every individual is a creator of news thanks to his or her presence on social media. Clearly, news creation as well as distribution has been decentralized. According to Medianama’s Pahwa, institutions like the government, newspapers and consumers are struggling with fake news. “Internet has scaled the consumption of fake news which is aggregated across a few platforms. The fear regarding fake news is who will regulate it? The government cannot regulate it as the question of free speech arises. So, the onus shifts to the platforms. But then, the question is, do we want to give them quasi-regulatory roles," he asks.
The issue is how to make the social media platforms accountable to citizens. Or if the consumer is being held responsible, do you hold the creator of the news responsible or the one who passes it on? There are no easy answers. A story published by The Indian Express newspaper recently highlighted the case of cricketer Harpreet Singh who remained unsold at the Indian Premier League players’ auction because of an incorrect tweet (by news agencies) about his arrest for driving his car straight into a railway platform in Mumbai. The fact was that it was former cricketer called Harmeet Singh who had broken the law. The incident may not strictly fall in the fake news category, but it’s definitely an inaccurate and incorrect story that spread fast through social media, damaging the cricketer’s career prospects. Needless to say, newsrooms must always be alert to misreporting and verify facts before putting out news. They need to have checks and balances to ensure that they do not create or perpetrate fake news.
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Of course, there is also a need to develop critical thinking among consumers. But that’s easier said than done as the nature of social media encourages people to share news instantaneously. “Sharing of information on social media seems more of a norm nowadays. It is like a ritual that is followed without giving it much thought. An instinctive behaviour stemming out of habit," explains Sanjay Chugh, senior consultant psychiatrist.
According to him, the social media platform is designed in such a way that one of the primary functions of the application is to share information. “Sometimes, the need to instantly share a message could arise from wanting to be the ‘first’ one in the group and need to project oneself as somebody who has all the information..." he says, adding it would be hard for a consumer to distinguish between fake and real news purely on the basis of a message received on a social media app. While everybody agrees that mainstream media must counter fake stories, opinion is divided on the role of regulation in curbing fake news—because that could open the dangerous door of censorship.
Mint was one of the sponsors of the “Fake News, Rumours and Online Content Regulation" event.
Shuchi Bansal is Mint’s media, marketing and advertising editor. Ordinary Post will look at pressing issues related to all three. Or just fun stuff.