Swachh Digital India: How Fake News Is Messing With Our Minds

How do fake news pieces impact political narratives and drive vested interests? Here’s a lowdown.

Swachh Digital India: How Fake News Is Messing With Our Minds

Call them rumours or fake news; they would find their way to influence people even before the mobile phone came into existence.

Now, they go viral on social media.

Earlier, fake news had a limited impact but thanks to the Internet and chat apps, today its reach is global.

“Fake news thrives on fake identities, is created by using fake information and is done to achieve an objective” explains cyber law expert Virag Gupta.

Fake news thrives on fake identities.
(Photo: iStock)
“It could impact lives. It has also become a tool in the hands of some political parties which spend massively on building effective IT teams.”

Applied as War Strategy

But spreading false information as a war strategy is not new.

One of the earliest mentions of this is in the Mahabharata, where false news was spread to kill Dronacharya, the Guru of the Pandavas and Kauravas.

“The Pandavas needed to spread false news of Dronacharya’s son Ashwathama’s death to defeat the Kauravas,” says Rajeev Balakrishnan, the author of ‘Death Seeking Immortal’.

Yudhishthir said, ‘Ashwathama hatah iti narova ya kunjarova’, meaning ‘Ashwathama is killed, I know not whether a man or an elephant.’

Dronacharya heard this, dropped his weapons and was killed.

“A conch was blown deliberately so that half the truth was not communicated,” explains Rajeev.

Winston Churchill once said, “In war, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.”
Spreading false information as a war strategy is not new.
(Photo: iStock)

During World War II, the Allied forces designed Operation Mincemeat to dupe the Nazis into believing that instead of attacking Sicily, they would attack Sardinia and Greece.

A corpse dressed as an officer of the Royal Marines carrying false ‘secret’ documents was dropped near the sea shore in Spain with the hope that the documents would make their way to the German Intelligence Service.

They did, and the invasion of Sicily was a success.


Promoted as a Political Tool

Fake news is designed to gain political mileage, but sometimes comes at a human cost.

‘I am a Troll’ author Swati Chaturvedi says, “Fake news is just a way to sway voter opinion. It is being created and pushed by political parties.”

“These parties employ professionals to burnish their image and beat back the opposition,” she says.

“It is understood that the Muzaffarnagar riots escalated after a fake and inflammatory video of the lynching of two men went viral. A few political leaders shared the video,” adds The Hindu journalist Mohammad Ali.

The video originated outside India. It was presented as if two local boys had been lynched, and it stoked religious sentiments.
Mohammad Ali, Journalist, The Hindu

More than 50 people died and over 50,000 fled in the 2013 riots.

“By the time the administration could act, the damage had been done,” says Mohammad Ali.

When asked, the Uttar Pradesh Police refused to comment on the role of the alleged fake video.


Stoking Religious Sentiments

In September 1995, news came in that the Hindu deity Ganesha had started drinking milk.

Hundreds of thousands of Hindus called it a ‘milk miracle’.

“Almost 20 percent of Delhi’s population was on the road to offer milk to Lord Ganesha,” scientist Gauhar Raza told the BBC.

Soon the news hit TV screens.

This started a chain reaction and a lot of people come forward with weird claims. One claimed the Ganesha idol kept on top of the refrigerator drank the milk kept inside.
Gauhar Raza, Scientist

To Create Panic

In 2001, the news of a ‘monkey man’ that attacked people spread like wildfire in parts of Delhi.

“Police released a sketch of the so-called monkey man. This strengthened suspicions. People started guarding colonies in the evenings,” Aaj Tak’s Chirag Goti recalled.

Rajeev Ranjan, then Superintendent of Police, had investigated the case.

Fake news items have often created widespread panic situations.
(Photo: iStock / Altered by The Quint)
There was panic. There were cases of people hurting themselves and putting blame on the monkey man.

“Many miscreants used this to spread fear,” Sandhya Times journalist Abhishek Rawat said.

“Investigations revealed there was no monkey man. The panic eased after the Delhi Police arrested a person,” said Rajeev Ranjan.


Crafting Confusion and Chaos

On 8 November 2016, Prime Minister Modi announced the demonetisation of the Rs 500 note and soon WhatsApp was buzzing with rumours that the new Rs 2,000 note had a ‘nano GPS chip’ embedded in it.

A Hindi news channel ran a programme claiming, “PM Modi will be able to locate currency notes because of the chip.”

Journalist Mohul Ghosh was one of the first to say the news was fake.

“We did some reasoning and discussed with experts. We compared the size of such a chip with that of a note, and we found this was not possible,” he says.

Around the same time in Amroha, Uttar Pradesh, WhatsApp was hit by the news of a salt shortage.

“There was chaos. People were buying and storing salt,” Amroha additional superintendent of Police Narendra Pratap Singh said.

“The rumours started in Ruhelkhand, Sambhal and Moradabad. We filed a complaint but we couldn’t trace the origin of the story.”

Is Facebook Aware of the Fake News Problem?

In a regulatory filing in 2012, Facebook said it estimates “duplicate accounts may have represented approximately 4.8 percent of the worldwide accounts.”

A duplicate account means an account that a user maintains in addition to the principal account.

“We believe the percentage of accounts that are duplicate or false is meaningfully lower in developed markets and higher in developing markets,” Facebook said.

Facebook had 950 million monthly active users in 2012.

This year Facebook began a project “to curb the spread of false news.”

The company is testing an educational tool to help people spot false news on the network.

But Facebook has not said anything about WhatsApp. Facebook owns Whatsapp.


Who Said What on Fake News

The media’s obsession with scandal was akin to “coprophilia”, an abnormal interest in excrement.
Pope Francis
Fake news is killing people’s mind in a way.
Tim Cook, CEO, Apple
Fake news- A total political witch hunt!
Donald J Trump, President of the United States of America
Stopping the spread of false news is an important part of building an informed community.
Mark Zuckerberg, Founder, Facebook

(This article is part of a series done in co-production between The Quint and BBC Hindi called Swachh Digital India. Read more articles from Swachh Digital India here.)

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