Fake News Monster is Devouring Democracy

By Tushar Charan

With heads of various social media platforms visiting and meeting Indian leaders in recent days, the focus seems to have shifted to the need to tame the monster called Fake News. The mission looks impossible when Fake News has become a major content of political discourses in the country and the politicians who lend direct or indirect support to it pretend to be oblivious to the danger it poses to the survival of healthy democracy in the country.

Narendra Modi is reported to have said that the 2019 polls will be fought with the help of social media. He probably said so because till very recently, his Bharatiya Janata Party faced virtually no challenge from the rivals. The reach of the social media supporting the BJP was several times greater than that of the Congress.

It is disturbing to note that the prime minister ardently follows social media messages that are clearly objectionable. It is an indication of his support to the message as well as those who circulate them. It also makes it hard to believe that Narendra Modi or his government wants to make sincere efforts to end the menace that emanates from the misuse of social media. The CEOs and proprietors of social media networks cannot force the prime minister to follow or not follow any media outlet.

The Opposition Congress woke up to the potential of social media after 2015, after the BJP had already established itself over a much larger territory. It is to be seen how much of this territory the BJP is made to cede in coming months and what role social media plays in the outcome of the next Lok Sabha polls. Some observers have said that the BJP may be unwise, unlike 2014, to depend too much on social media with the help of its formidable IT cell.

The spread of Fake News over the social media in India and its consequences have been brought out by a BBC documentary which cannot be dismissed as Opposition propaganda. It makes it clear that the ‘right’ in India is far ahead of its rivals in using—rather, misusing—the social media platforms to propagate falsehood in pursuance of its ‘nationalist’ agenda.

Politics is perhaps the more popular subject of displaying the dubious FN talents but instances of social media networks being used for attacking non-political persons—mostly celebrities and lately journalists too– are not lacking. Politicians revel in hitting out at their rivals in objectionable ways but in most cases they have a clear idea of who is hiding behind the attack when the contestants are face to face. The social media attacker may not be known and, in any case, is physically at a safe distance.

Film and sport stars and journalists are trolled mercilessly and in case of journalists, abuses are sometimes accompanied by threats to life and limb when what they have written is considered unflattering to a leader or his or her ideology.

Not just India, much of the world is said to be lunging towards the ‘right’ with its emphasis on ‘nationalism’. Intolerance of criticism is negation of democratic principles, more so when it is mixed with threats and intimidation. It is, of course, not surprising that the BBC survey has found that the ‘right’ in India with its ‘nationalist’ agenda is more active on the social media than the rival ‘left’ leaning groups and organisations.

It may be an old timer’s whine, but it does appear that the negative part of the social media has gained salience after the media–newspapers to be precise– virtually decided to provide lesser and lesser space for expressing divergent views. That is to say, the readers’ forum in newspapers, identified as the Letters to the Editor column, has become a casualty in most newspapers. Some have done away with it and some publish not more than a handful of letters from the readers, mostly in appreciation of what has been published. This form of flattery has replaced the old practice of publishing letters expressing divergent views, often challenging the contents of an article or an editorial.

There can be no justification for denying the readers their ‘right’ to express their views. But perhaps the newspapers will argue that the social media provides more than ample space for the readers to comment on what they have read in a publication—or heard over the airwaves and the idiot box. It may also be true that far more people are willing to express their views on the social media than taking recourse to writing letters to the Editor.

But that is where the problem begins. Social media comments may be filtered on paper; in reality there is a free-for- all atmosphere for expressing views on the social media. You can use abusive language and circulate manufactured news through the social media without much to worry about consequences.

The letters column in newspapers uses readers’ comments after judiciously editing the letter; not by basically changing their tone but to ensure that there is nothing obscene or patently defamatory in them. This kept the dialogue between the reader and the writer at a civilised level. Civility in expressing opinions has by and large become a casualty with the advent of the social media—and the mushrooming television ‘news’ channels.

Fake News accelerates through Twitter, Facebook or WhatsApp groups and is also lapped up by TV channels. There is apparently nothing much that is being done, or can be done, to stop the pernicious trend which is eroding the basic intelligence and good sense of ordinary citizens because of the overflowing hate contents.
It is relatively easy to send distorted texts with a view to malign someone or organisation. But the FN crowd is equally proficient in morphing photographs for reprehensible ends.

Ordinary men and women cannot distinguish between the real and fake photographs which are circulated with ulterior motives—to divide society and incite violence. In their zeal to incite hatred and polarise society, social media platforms have been used to circulate provocative photographs and, what is more, it succeeded in obtaining the objective.

Judging the veracity of text messages is also not easy for the ordinary citizens. The problem, however, becomes complex when the false messages are circulated within a close-knit groups where nobody bothers to check the source of information. Perhaps the best way to meet the challenge will be for the politicians to inspire people to respect differences in opinion and understand the value of dignified discourses.

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Journalist, South Asian Analyst
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