If you've been following the debate around the ban on Pakistani artistes in India, you may have come across the latest development:
Fawad Khan has apparently shown the world his true colours and called Indians "small hearted" and declared "Bollywood kisike baap ka hai?" in a response to the calls for his ouster from Hindi film projects, including Karan Johar's Ae Dil Hai Mushkil.
Look for this particular comment on a Google News search and the first page shows up about 11 results, all from different sites. One page two, the numbers drops a little, to nine sites that have carried the 'news item', nine again on the third page, and by the fourth, it finally peters out to about three.
The headlines of all these various reports are variations of:
Some clearly feel Fawad's 'betrayal' a lot more keenly and their headlines make it evident:
Oh, and there's anger — plenty of it, as evinced in posts of this nature:
They all end with a "gosh, Karan Johar and Salman Khan must sure be feeling silly now, having supported Pakistani artistes and all". Some of the sites have even used metaphors like Fawad "spitting on the faces of Indians" and make the claims that the actor said this after landing in Pakistan.
The news items have been circulated widely.
There's just one issue though: The reports are untrue.
News website The Quint painstakingly tracked the original sources of these news reports — and quite the rabbit hole that proved to be for writer Suresh Mathew. It led to a cluster of non-news websites: One called Godofsmallthing.com, which 'reported' the story, then included a disclaimer at the end that stated they had not authenticated the report.
The site did, however, include a handy little mention of its 'sources' — Internethindu.org and Threemad.com, and Mathew then visited these, only to be directed to their source, Danik Bharat.
Now the Dainik Bharat report quotes producer TP Aggarwal as saying that this is what Fawad said.
When Mathew called up Aggarwal (who was part of the Indian Motion Pictures Producers' Association meeting where the ban on Pakistani artistes and technicians were passed; side note: Aggarwal's son Rahul resigned from his own post in IMPPA to protest the decision; before the IMPPA meet, Aggarwal replaced a song by Rahat Fateh Ali Khan in his upcoming film), the producer couldn't remember any particulars.
“Maine meeting mein suna tha, koi bata raha tha... mujhe yaad nahi hai,” were his words to Mathew, who called him up asking for specifics of just what Fawad was supposed to have said.
In the wake of the rising anti-Pakistan sentiment in India against the backdrop of the Uri attacks that left 18 of our military personnel dead, Fawad — by virtue of being the most successful crossover star in Bollywood from the other side of the border — has become the target of protests by groups like the Maharastra Navnirman Sena and invective-laden rants on social media.
For a while, there were even reports that Fawad had left India after the MNS issued its edict to all Pakistani artistes to leave Indian in 48 hours "or else...". Then, reports in Hindustan Times and India Today pointed out that the actor had left India back in July — long before the current row started — to be with his wife Sadaf, who is expecting the couple's second child.
The Fawad case is yet another example of how false information multiplies on the internet, a problem that The Daily O also highlighted in a report dated 26 September. The story pointed out how a message that had been proved as a hoax four years ago (Does "You could be shameless, I am not," says Ratan Tata ring any bells?), was being recirculated and going viral.
That social media promotes a false sense of intimacy between people is something we've accepted as true. But the past few years have shown that it's also promoting entirely false information as 'news'.
In fact, this headline by The Hustle for a piece on the subject just about says it all:
A report called “Lies, Damn Lies and Viral Content: How News Websites Spread (and Debunk) Online Rumors, Unverified Claims and Misinformation” by Craig Silverman found that there are certain 'bad practices' that lead to false information being propagated as news.
On reading The Quint's story, you'll find that nearly all of these 'bad practices' were followed in the Fawad Khan 'Bollywood kisike baap ka hai?' episode.
Silverman observes, "Many sites apply little or no basic verification to the claims they pass on. Instead, they rely on linking-out to other reports, which themselves often only cite other reports as well. The story’s point of origin, once traced back through the chain of links, is often something posted on social media or a thinly sourced claim from a person or entity."
The report also noted that while writers may phrase their headlines as a question to indicate that they themselves do not know if a story is true, very often, that is not the message passed on to readers. "Research shows these subtleties result in misinformed audiences," Silverman notes.
The fake-information-masquerading-as-news phenomenon is certainly not new. It's been around as long as people have, but social media and the internet have just made its spread much wider, much faster.
Even reputed news outlets aren't safe from the malaise, as they can be duped by false information — as was the case when everyone from Associated Press to several tech news sites reported in 2012 that Google was considering a $40 million buyout of a WiFi service provider Icoa (the source was a fake item that had been uploaded onto a press release disseminating website). In the immediate aftermath of the 2013 Boston marathon bombings, the Smithsonian found that of the 8 million tweets sent in the days following the incident, just 20 percent were accurate pieces of factual information
Time magazine, in a report on how fake information was spread via the internet that overestimated the threat of Ebola in the US, causing panic, compared rumours to an epidemic; with a 'patient zero' quickly infecting a whole lot of other people, through a tweet or Facebook post.
These rumour epidemics have helped hoaxes like the woman with three breasts, the man called Phuc Dat Bich who was allegedly banned on Facebook, indeed the endless number of messages asking people to post status messages on their Facebook walls that will then prevent the tech giant from misusing their data or some other equally evil thing, spread like wildfire, and for them to be accepted as the 'truth'.
Believing that a man called Phuc Dat Bich was discriminated against by Facebook is not likely to have very serious consequences.
But when calls for a war between two nations are growing, spreading lies about Fawad Khan's alleged inflammatory statements isn't just irresponsible or unethical, it's downright dangerous.