The advent of fake news is not new, but it has now spread to a disturbing and epidemic level because of the rampant growth of the internet. It has emerged as a highly destructive soft weapon which may deeply affect the thought process and ideologies of the future generation.
Several online portals, apps and websites have polluted the internet with venomous political and religious news that were either fabricated or false. While the false information may appear to be innocuous, it creates the larger menace we face today. In the past couple of years, India has witnessed unprecedented growth in the online content targeting new-age users who are mainly the millennials.
The rise of fake news was noticeable during the election campaign of the 2014 General Elections when political parties made effective use of online platforms particularly Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, to influence the voters. A massive hate campaign was planned and promoted online to create divisions in society and create vote banks.
Political parties spent a fortune to plant illusionary news against their opponents in order to influence voters. Besides spreading false and inciting news, many portals distributed content that had incorrect information, doctored videos, photoshopped images to malign the opposing politicians.
The ruling BJP government blocked the internet in Jammu & Kashmir to stop the spread of false and inciting news. Fake videos fuelling communal riots, violence, and inappropriate clippings were among the main precipitants of divisions. This led to communal and political unrest in states that have some tensions already. Fake stories were planted as the anti-Rohingya rhetoric on social media, where photographs of children were misused in the divisive propaganda. The fresh outbreak of violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine province since August also sparked a steady stream of provocative fake images.
Unfortunately, several writers, bloggers and journalists are involved in developing the content that denigrates leaders/groups of the opposite ideology based on falsehoods. This has gained traction in the last few years and has polarised the nation. The internet is the main conduit of this method of spreading hate.
Internet users are exposed to fake news such as Indian national anthem ‘Jan Gan Man’ being judged as the best one by the UNESCO. Several celebrities and nationalist politicians retweeted the images of Indian Army soldiers guarding the borders during heavy snowfall. It turned out they were soldiers were from the Russian Army!
In the post –demonetization period, a viral hoax suggested Rs 2000 note has been embedded with ‘nano-GPS chip’ to track the currency! It was later claimed that this false news was articulately planted by the BJP to highlight the benefits of new currency introduced by PM Narendra Modi.
The news of nano-GPS came out at the same time when Donald Trump was elected as the President of the US. The United States has been facing the malaise of fake news for a longer time. Several hoax stories related to Trump and Hillary Clinton, his opponent, had been circulating and still pollute the social media. The most bizarre piece of fake news suggested Pope persuading the Catholics to vote for Trump!
Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler of the University of Michigan and Georgia State University, in their study, found how people were given a fake article claiming that the U.S. had found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. When shown a second, true article reporting that the U.S. had indeed found nothing, liberal-leaning people accepted the information, while those with conservative right-wing politics refused to believe the second article.
Although mainstream media is controlled by rules and laws, the internet, unfortunately, has no legal control as of now on the newsflow. We need uniform guidelines, regulation and policy regarding fabricated content. While the mainstream media faces censorship guidelines and press rules, there are no such constraints on websites. Although users creating hate content can be booked under relevant sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), it does not stop the spread of unreliable content.
A website called AltNews.com co-founded by Pratik Sinha is working to unleash the web of lies served on the internet. Several bogus news stories planted by the supporters of ruling BJP to promote their party in a good light have been exposed by AltNews. Channels such as ABPNews has been running a show titled Viral Sach, the reporters here carry out an extensive research and investigation to find the truth behind fake viral videos and news. SM Hoax Slayer has also been involved in exposing false news spread across the internet. Its website brought to fore several photoshopped images planted on the internet to create a positive image of PM Modi and to present Rahul Gandhi and other Congress leaders in poor light.
These websites revealed that celebrities and politicians are to blame for spreading the unverified and false news. Actor turned MP, Paresh Rawal, has been accused of regularly tweeting incorrect news, done with the sole intention of promoting BJP. Kirron Kher was recently trolled after she posted pictures of Russian Army men mistaking them to be Indian Army soldiers guarding the borders. It seems that political leaders and celebrities have been misleading the public through false propaganda on social media, to earn brownie points from their party leaders.
Since the rise of fake news has been one of the main markers of 2017, there has been increasing polarisation in Indian society. Time is right out for the government to introduce strict rules to control it, but this should not be just about blocking the internet.
The Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, and project investigator at the institute’s Centre for Cybersecurity and Cyber Defence of Critical Infrastructure, a centre for research on cybersecurity claim that first-time mobile users are the ones who largely fall prey to fake news distributed sporadically on Facebook and Twitter.
Internet giants like Facebook and Google have tied up with fact-checking organizations to check the news they show on their feeds. Facebook has been running advertisements from time-to-time, alerting users to spot fake news.
Techies have been suggesting the use of a few plugins that flag unreliable websites. BS Detector (BSdetector.tech, free), which works on Chrome and Mozilla-based browsers, checks all the links on a given webpage with unreliable sources and domains. Free Chrome plugins include Fake News Alert, Fake News Detector, and Fake News Blocker.
It’s time that each one of us contributes to control of fake news, which is distorting the social fabric of the nation.