In the 21st century, the idea of a negotiable truth has been grafted on to technology. India is replete with rumours, half-truths and blatant lies. Some of these inevitably worm their way into the media and social media platforms where they often become ‘viral’ and acquire a life of their own. The real issue is not that fake news — embellished in recent days by the crafty use of technology — exists. More telling is why some fake news gets to be readily believed. And by whom?
In today’s atmosphere of righteous indignation, it is sometimes easy to forget that all the wrongs confronting the world didn’t begin either with social media or Donald Trump.
Take the case of fake news, the newest discovery that democracies are neither able to swallow nor spit out. Last week witnessed convulsions in the media — both mainstream and social — over a ham-fisted attempt by the ministry of information and broadcasting to punish wrongdoers with the equivalent of court martial and dishonourable discharge. It required the Prime Minister’s personal intervention to nullify the proposed changes and pass the buck to the Press Council, a body unsure of its contemporary relevance. More than the tentativeness over what constitutes fake news, the 36-hour drama showed yet again that the media is probably India’s most formidable trade union that no one wants to confront headlong.
Public memory being short, it is convenient to forget that the fake news didn’t exist in the public imagination until November 2016 when, defying all punditry, Donald Trump scored a surprise election victory. Predictably, this outcome threw the entire liberal and media establishment into a tizzy. Trump hardly had the backing of any ‘respectable’ notable and there was barely a media organisation of any consequence that endorsed his candidature. He was not only an outsider but an outlander.
The American media’s inability to assess the groundswell in favour of a candidate who seemed to defy all rules of campaigning was an enormous collective failure. The failure to gauge the mood of the proverbial other half was undoubtedly a consequence of existing in a cosy echo chamber and succumbing to groupthink. However, instead of admitting its own lapses, the liberal temptation was to point an accusing finger at an alternative world. It was smugly suggested that a parallel world had been built on different social assumptions and ‘alternative’ facts. In short, fake news.
It was a mischievous overstatement. People’s perceptions are built on a multiplicity of inputs. These include not merely what individuals consume in the media but what their own experience tells them. If there is a sharp mismatch between the two, there is a temptation to retreat into separate echo chambers, untroubled by doubts. The worldviews of those who saw redemption in Trump and those who perceived him as an incarnation of evil were vastly different. What one lot instinctively believed was considered fake news by the other.
This polarisation was replicated in the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum. And again, the sharp schism between what has been called the ‘nowhere’ people and the ‘somewhere’ people was sought to be explained in terms of the triumph of fake news.
India is accustomed to alternative universes. Historians have studied the preponderance of rumours — what in today’s parlance would be dubbed fake news — in mass mobilisations. The uprising of 1857 was triggered by perceptions of travelling chapatis that foretold imminent collapse and greased cartridges that suggested an alien assault on faiths. Mahatma Gandhi on his part was accorded superhuman qualities by communities that existed outside the ecosystem of the ‘educated’ Indians. The British rulers, having internalised the virtues of paternalism, could sometimes never quite understand why self-government was preferred by Indians to good government. They could also never comprehend how the same man who was docile and even obsequious could, in a different context, attach such importance to self-respect.
In the 21st century, the idea of a negotiable truth has been grafted on to technology. India is replete with rumours, half-truths and blatant lies. Some of these inevitably worm their way into the media and social media platforms where they often become ‘viral’ and acquire a life of their own. The real issue is not that fake news — embellished in recent days by the crafty use of technology — exists. More telling is why some fake news gets to be readily believed. And by whom? Why is a fracas after a local altercation viewed by some as evidence of everyday irritability and by others as an instance of inter-communal tensions? Why do people believe what they want to believe, regardless of authenticity?
There is one type of fake news — doctored photographs or videos, outright lies, etc — that is deserving of outright condemnation and even legal action. The problem is that the definition of fake news has been stretched. What used to be called ‘spin’ in the sphere of politics has been conferred more sinister connotations by a media that finds its control over information questioned and challenged. This is a battle in which the state need not get involved.