India & Disinformation: Fact-Checkers Must Feel Free To Speak Truth to Power

It is not a level-playing field as the ‘monopoly on truth’ remains effectively with the ruling dispensation.

4 min read
India & Disinformation: Fact-Checkers Must Feel Free To Speak Truth to Power

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It is calculated that the previous US President Donald Trump made 30,573 false or misleading claims over his four years of Presidential tenure. It was a calibrated escalation from an average of 21 untruths daily that shockingly jumped to 503 falsities on the last date before his desperate attempt to get re-elected.

Yet with such a robust and thriving ecosystem of fact-checking of political rhetoric and claims, Donald Trump's popular vote percentage increased from 46.1% in 2016 to 46.8% in 2020, despite just losing. In short, lies sell.

The power of untruths when it came to electoral relevance can be gauged from the fact that the US is ranked 20th in the world for education level for the total population versus 134th-ranked India (60% more than India).

This reality notwithstanding the invaluable protective cover of the First Amendment in the US (protecting freedom of speech, the press, assembly, and the right to petition the government for a redress of grievance), is afforded to the fact-checking industry to call out the bluffs and hold the powerful accountable by fact-checking, fearlessly.

Basically, even with a higher literacy (and therefore, a base expectation of prudence) and freedom of press, the blind partisanship and indifference to the untruths by the US electorate were shocking.


US' Robust Fact-Checking vs India's Waning Press Freedom

Later, as part of its natural recourse, Joe Biden too was subjected to fact-checking for his varied and creative shades of lies, spin-doctoring, exaggerations, obfuscations, truth-stretching, etc once he assumed the Presidential mantle.

Biden was recorded to have made 78 false or misleading statements in his first 100 days in office (compared to 511 by Donald Trump in his first 100 days). In the US, every statement of the national leader is stripped for levels of accuracy, contexts, or grandiosities, and the American electorate and democracy are at least better informed.

Now consider the case of the ‘world’s largest democracy’ ie, India, with a fledgling (if existent at all?) fact-checking industry, unhealthy slide in freedom of press (from rank 138th to 150th in a matter of five years for Press Freedom Index by ‘Reporters Without Borders’) and a political culture of making the most outlandish, unsubstantiated, and bizarre claims, without the adequate and unbiased rigour of being held accountable.

It is a serious malaise that afflicts not just the ruling dispensation, but equally the opposition parties be it at the national or regional levels.


Constitutionally, freedom of the press is protected, and media crime is covered under the Indian Penal Code (IPC). However, the same is practically constrained by the selective invocation of defamation law, inadequate protection of whistleblowers, and asymmetric barriers, disallowances, and disablements to free access of information.

In such times, facts are no longer the truth, but perception is. It is not a level-playing field as the ‘monopoly on truth’ remains effectively with the ruling dispensation (as was the case with earlier governments too) as the dominant base of the media ecosystem is unprecedently compromised.

The prevailing situation harks back to the much-forgotten LK Advani’s famous lament on the curbs of factual information and the status of media during Emergency, “When asked to bend, they crawled” – such obsequiousness, beholden or fearful air is hardly conducive to the nonpartisan culture of fact-checking in India.


Ruling Regime's Response to Fact-Checking

Universally, the principal opposition to the fact-checking industry comes from the ruling dispensations (whichever they be at the given point), as it is the reporting of their untruths that have far graver consequences and implications than those of the opposition.

Nonetheless, it is critical to fact-check both sides with equal intensity to improve the quality of debate and informed choice. In the rare event of getting exposed or embarrassed with the truth somehow emerging forth, resorting to whataboutery and deflection of issues becomes the preferred norm as the incumbent governments can double-down, drown or obfuscate the dissonance. Therefore, it is only the cold and undeterred fact-checking of the narrative that can stick, survive, and impact the political discourse beyond manipulation.

Understandably rattled by the nature of fact-checking, recently a film director known for his partisan loyalties towards the dispensation tweeted, “Fact-checking is the biggest extortion mafia today. Controlled by crazy, lunatic terror organisation." He even justified his opinion using crass subtexts like ‘puncture wala’ and ‘jihadi’ to explain himself.


Fact-Checking Units Must Function Independently

In mature democracies, independent fact-checkers even act as vanguards against the credibility and reportage of leading media houses, who can have the capacity, partisanship, and (mal)intent to act as echo chambers to frame the situation as ordained or ordered.

Propagandists and hired guns in media too can always craft a lie about what constitutes a ‘fact’ and do irreparable harm to the body politics. Today, when even recorded history is up for questioning (ironically, not the leaders themselves) and getting redefined or renamed, it is imperative independent fact-checking culture abounds without it getting ‘controlled’ or subjected to attributions.

Since independence, all governments and political parties have tried to retain the ‘monopoly on the truth’ and to that extent, all have been complicit in the current situation. Non-partisanship demands facts over opinions and as the national elections loom next year, it will test the moral integrity, honesty, and constitutionality of the dispensation if it allows the spirit of transparency, questioning, and fact-checking to abound or remain suppressed towards electoral considerations.

(The author is a Former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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Topics:  Joe Biden   donald trump   Fact-Checking 

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