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India’s Fake News Factories: Taking a Cue From Nazis & Soviets

As India’s “fake news factories” go on overdrive, let’s revisit 1940s’ Katyn Massacre to see how it all began.

Updated
Opinion
5 min read
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Too caught up to read the story? Listen to it instead.

Today, as fake news – facts twisted to suit a political end – goes unchecked in many countries, including India and the United States, let’s go back to history, for it does repeat itself.

When the Nazis discovered in the spring of 1943 the mass graves and the full horrors of the now-infamous Katyn Forest– thanks to a hungry wolf – a deluge of vile acts of “faking” events and news was soon to follow.

The Katyn Massacre, 1940: Rows of exhumed bodies of Polish officers placed on the ground by the mass graves, awaiting examination. <i>Date: 30 April 1943 </i><i>(World War II)</i>
The Katyn Massacre, 1940: Rows of exhumed bodies of Polish officers placed on the ground by the mass graves, awaiting examination. Date: 30 April 1943 (World War II)
(Photo: Imperial War Museum / Wikimedia Commons) 
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In April-May 1940, execution squads of the Soviet NKVD, the forerunner of the KGB, had massacred thousands of Polish prisoners of war in a forested area about 400 kilometres west of Moscow. Upon discovering the graves, the German Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels immediately set to work and the Nazis’ investigation found the Soviets responsible for the killings.

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Member of the International Medical Commission, Dr Vincenzo Palmieri, Professor of Forensic Medicine and Criminology at the University of Naples, dictating results of the body examination to his personal assistant. <i>Date: 30 April 1943 (World War II)</i>
Member of the International Medical Commission, Dr Vincenzo Palmieri, Professor of Forensic Medicine and Criminology at the University of Naples, dictating results of the body examination to his personal assistant. Date: 30 April 1943 (World War II)
(Photo: Imperial War Museum / Wikimedia Commons) 
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Katyn Massacre & Allied Powers’ Propaganda

The story was played up, but the Allied leaders — including Winston Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt — did not protest. Joseph Stalin dismissed the massacre as one committed by the Nazis, outdoing even Goebbels in propaganda tactics.

The Red Army formed a committee, recorded the examinations of the human remains on camera and put the blame on the German forces, especially the Einsatzgruppen (special killing squads). While many in Poland knew or suspected an NKVD hand, the Soviet Union managed to keep the killings under wraps for decades.

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Red army soldiers in the early 1930s.
Red army soldiers in the early 1930s.
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons) 
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The cat was out of the bag in 1990, when the Mikhail Gorbachev administration admitted that the NKVD (under the ruthless Lavrenti Beria) had committed the cold-blooded crime under the direct order of Stalin.

The Soviet fake news industry aimed at discrediting its Nazi counterpart’s ‘truth’.

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Josef Stalin (centre), leader of the Soviet Union during the Great Purge.
Josef Stalin (centre), leader of the Soviet Union during the Great Purge.
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
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India’s Thriving ‘Fake News Factory’

Coming back to India, the current government’s attempts to check ‘fake news’ are as ham-handed as they may be politically motivated.

Prime Minister Modi has now stepped in to quash the Information and Broadcasting Ministry’s notification, which was aimed at penalising PIB-accredited Indian journalists if they were to be found publishing or broadcasting “fake news”.

The notification had, understandably, caused consternation among those who hold a “PIB card” whose colour code is changed every year.

The alarm stemmed from a belief, certainly not unfounded, that with just about a year left for the general election, the Modi government has set in motion a draconian decision aimed at curtailing the freedom of press and targeting individual journalists who continue to publish/broadcast stories and reports that hit the establishment hard.

The move was interpreted as the government’s way to “get even” with a “recalcitrant” media that refuses to “fall in line” or does not publish or broadcast news glorifying the regime and pay obeisance to select leaders.

The I&B Ministry’s diktat, now revoked, appears to have been inspired by a recent decision by the Malaysian government to crackdown on fake news. The only difference is that the Indian government trained its guns on legitimate journalists – those who hold accreditation cards – and not the innumerable shady websites that spew out fake news, video clips and views that are designed to mock, cause confusion, disinformation and, I dare say, incite violence.

A few days ago, the Karnataka police arrested the “editor” of Postcard News that is in the business of peddling completely made-up information.

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As support of BJP leaders poured in, the hashtag #ReleaseMaheshHegde began trending on Twitter. Mahesh Hegde is the “editor” of Postcard News, a fake news website.
As support of BJP leaders poured in, the hashtag #ReleaseMaheshHegde began trending on Twitter. Mahesh Hegde is the “editor” of Postcard News, a fake news website.
(Photo: Altered by The Quint)
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Fake News-Busters: The Redeemers

And then there was the video clip of a former troll who appeared on camera to claim how armies of young men and women have been employed to post inflammatory and inappropriate messages on social media to provoke and/or destroy legitimate news or opinion pieces that are perceived to be against the ruling establishment.

The print and electronic media, barring a minority that blare and flare in defence of the regime, usually is not in the business of propagating fake news. While routine news stories, those that emanate out of press briefings or news conferences hosted by individual ministers and senior bureaucrats, have historically been faithfully covered, “special or investigative stories” usually go through rigorous “in-house” processes of vetting and confirmation by at least two sources.

Most newspaper and television channels that function out of Delhi and other places have been true to the basic tenets of journalism, though the odd “plant” or an “inspired story” does slip through.

The government’s need to issue a notification that sought to regulate news by strong-arm measures stemmed from a degree of fear, as most such actions usually are.

The fear is related to what I believe is a sudden spike in hard-hitting stories related to mis-governance, corruption, poor management, under-achievement and sometimes outright fibbing.

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Govt’s Attempts to Silence Media May Backfire

Over the past few months, other armies of troll-busters have also taken to social media to “give it back” in equal, if not greater, measure. With the government now on the edge – it’s hard to predict whether the ruling party will be able to produce an electoral result similar to 2014 – sections of the bureaucracy have “begun to open up”, causing a sudden gush of legitimate stories and exposés.

I&B Minister Smriti Irani will also have to contend with the high levels of anger in her own backyard: Conscientious officers, both men and women, who man the many desks at the PIB’s Shastri Bhavan headquarters are seething, not only because of her imperious ways and how their functions have been curtailed, but also because, they believe, strong-arm tactics often do not work.

Over the past four years, the greatest propaganda coup of the ruling establishment has been to convince vast sections of the population that we are in the “grips of a liberal conspiracy”. These sections of the population swallowed and followed.

Today, as we see the corrupting effects of fake news and an incessant propaganda of fear, the government’s attempts to muzzle the press may come back to bite it — hard.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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