Fake News 2.0: Normalised, Neutralised & More Dangerous
On the morning of 27 April, my Facebook newsfeed was awash with a doctored image of The Times of India (TOI) headline – ‘Modi, Xi to mate 6 times in 24 hours.’ In an age where people wake up to WhatsApp and Facebook notifications before their morning newspapers, the doctored headline immediately went viral – eliciting ROFL emojis, adult jokes, and faux concern for the ‘poor’ desk editor who misspelt ‘meet’ as ‘mate’.
Except that the humour didn’t last long. Soon enough, Pratik Sinha of Alt News tweeted a close-up of the doctored and the actual headline (‘Modi, Xi to meet 6 times in 24 hours’) to show that the ‘t’ and the ‘e’ in ‘mate’ were larger than the ‘t’ and the ‘e’ in ‘meet’.
The morphed picture was easily verifiable. One only had to pick a copy of TOI from their living room or office reception and check it. But caution and giving benefit of the doubt to the erring is a thing of old.
Too busy to read? Listen to it instead.
Typing errors and proof-reading oversight are, after all, very human possibilities and it’s not completely illogical to think that ‘meet’ could have been misspelt as ‘mate’.
Read some of The Quint’s fake news-busting stories here.
When Opinion Decides The Veracity Of News
But were users really driven by logic? Hardly. Far from logic or common sense, our personal viewpoint – whether an informed opinion or unreasonable bias – is the primary factor that helps us decide whether or not a piece of information is true.
This is not to say their views are unreasonable or not based on facts. It’s not off the mark to believe that the Times Group, especially its TV channel Times Now, falters on journalistic duty; or that the prime minister practises discriminatory politics and doesn’t deliver on his promises.
Given their opinions, the users were quick to believe that indeed TOI did commit the headline blunder, especially the kind that ends up being a joke on Modi.
‘Opinions Cannot Come Before Facts’
Those who pride themselves in holding informed or fact-based opinions must remember that opinions cannot, must not, come before facts themselves. Opinion cannot exist without truth; it must always settle for the lesser role.
But humans are still humans. The heart often overpowers the mind, and thus opinion overtakes truth itself. It is this human weakness that the fake news industry thrives upon.
All industries – whether automobile or pornography – exist because there is a human need or desire for them. It is also a human desire or need to be fed with information we want to consume, irrespective of its factuality. It is this logic which governs the Facebook algorithm – the kind of posts we engage with are the ones that end up on our newsfeed.
If people want to believe that UNESCO declared Modi to be the ‘best prime minister’, fake news websites/pages will give it to them. If people want to believe that an Arab prince said ‘Jai Shri Ram’ on stage, fake news videos will give it to them. If people want to believe that Rs 2,000 notes come embedded with electronic chips, fake news websites/pages will give it to them. If people want to believe that a Saudi cleric gave a fatwa that a man can eat his wife when he is hungry, a fake news website will provide such ‘news’. Indeed, in the last example, it’s not just our cultural/religious biases, but also our fetish for the outlandish that comes into play.
‘Fake News’ Is An Oxymoron
Indeed, such is the power of human bias and insecurities that political parties use fake news as a tool to swerve public opinion in their favour. The more fertile ground for dispensation of falsities is WhatsApp, where encryption makes it difficult to be caught spreading fake news, let alone originating it.
‘Fake news’ is an oxymoron – news, by its very definition, is the reporting of facts, or the truth. How can a fact also be fake? Fake news should be called a rumour as it is just that – a rumour. But it’s a rumour that is presented as news, in all seriousness, with headlines, place and date if it is published online, or with a trained voice reading the ‘news’ if it is recorded. This ‘news-like’ veneer lends the rumours a stamp of authority and credibility.
Fake news is not new, of course; it’s been the buzzword since the NDA came to power in 2014. But four years is a long time, and fake news has grown (for lack of a better word) in style and reach. First, it has let go of its news-like veneer. Now, a low-quality video shot on mobile or an ill-drafted message on WhatsApp passes as fake news. In the case of Asifa’s gangrape, there was a WhatsApp message about a Muslim raping the girl and dumping her in a temple. Those who wished to believe this falsity shared the message despite the Delhi Forensic Science Laboratory report establishing that the DNA samples recovered from the girl’s body matched those of the accused.
Now Liberals, Too, Use Fake News To Drive Home Their Point
The second, and perhaps, more worrying change is the neutralisation and thus normalisation of fake news. Fake news is the forte of the right-wing; the NDA and its supporters have long been exaggerating Modi’s position in the world and painting minorities in a negative colour.
But of late, the left-liberals too have taken to sharing doctored images in order to drive home their ideological point.
For instance, when nationwide protests erupted over the brutal gangrape of Asifa, images of two men wearing T-shirts with ‘Justice for Asifa’ written on them at the Istanbul airport went viral. The images were doctored, as exposed by Hoax Slayer, but were widely shared among those opposed to the BJP.
The example of the TOI doctored image followed soon after. When exposed to be untrue, many users remarked, “it was fun as long as the joke lasted” or “this gives the BJP a taste of its own medicine.”
Vineet Jain, Times Group owner, however, wasn’t amused and threatened on Twitter: “Trolls delete your defamatory posts. We are watching you, compiling your names & coming after you.” His rage is understandable, but one wishes he had instructed TOI to exercise caution when it published a blog by Francois Gautier in which the author falsely claimed that medieval French thinker Nostradamus predicted the coming of Narendra Modi in India.
When exposed by AltNews, the blog post was first removed and then republished as “satire”. Times Now also carried a fake video of Arab columnist Sultan Sood Al Qasmi saying ‘Jai Shri Ram’ during PM Modi’s visit to the UAE. The channel wrongly claimed that the person in the video was Abu Dhabi crown prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, before it was corrected by Dubai-based daily Gulf News.
Indeed, part of the success of ‘fake news’ is that it has been endorsed by a careless mainstream media that doesn’t do the basic job of fact-checking before relaying it to a larger audience. Remember the ‘chip-embedded Rs 2000 note’ being reported by Aaj Tak and Zee News?
Still, two wrongs don’t make a right. Neutralisation of fake news, in the long run, could create trust deficit in society.
Who would be sure of what to believe in when followers of competing ideologies begin composing and sharing doctored images and videos just to ‘give it back to each other’?
It reminds me of the ‘cry wolf’ story. Each time, a boy would fool the villagers by crying that a wolf has come to attack his flock of sheep. But when a wolf did come to attack his sheep, nobody heard his cry, and the wolf ate his flock. Let’s hope that we don’t come to a point where real news is dismissed as fake too.
(Irena Akbar is an art curator and writer, formerly with The Indian Express)