Paid news is passe in India, as fake news takes over

By Madhavan Narayanan

If you think fake news is something only for a fancy war between The New York Times and US President Donald Trump, think again. India is facing the same challenge, but perhaps in a different way - and in fact, this one may be harder to counter than the ones that are shaking up the establishment in the United States. Here's why.

First, it is heartening to note that Facebook, which is now the world's leading platform for sharing of news and views by all accounts, has begun tagging news items as "disputed" by citing fact-checking sites such as as gatekeepers. By now, it is part of Internet folklore on how enterprising youngsters from Macedonia set up fake news sites to make money because these invited clicks that helped them earn dubious advertising cash.

There is more to fake news in India than pay-per-click equivalents of fly-by-night operators. What is at stake is the reputation of the mainstream media and a contentious ideological propaganda involving political groups that have affiliated news sites that set the stage for social media trolling.

There are three categories of dubious or fake news in India.

Delhi University student Gurmehar Kaur has been attacked by trolls over a fake video that was being circulated online

Delhi University student Gurmehar Kaur has been attacked by trolls over a fake video that was being circulated online in her name

The first we could call as "grey news" where politically biased "independent" news sites target mainstream media entities by accusing them of bias and play up stray factoids or disproportionately contextualised news that are in turn picked up for systematic dissemination or trolling on social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook.

In the second category, we have morphed or misidentified videos, photographs or recordings that are associated with newsworthy themes to discredit, slander or target politically sensitive persons or themes. Delhi University student Gurmehar Kaur is the latest victim of such slander -- often used by moral police or its fronts to discredit rivals in ideological debates. Incidents in JNU last year that gave rise to purported videos involving anti-national speeches and slogans connected by innuendo to student leaders Umar Khalid and Kanhaiya Kumar are still being subjected to judicial scrutinty but have provided ammunition to political name-calling.

WhatsApp phone logo Tech2 720

The UP elections are not being fought on TV but on WhatsApp, a senior editor told the author

The third category involves WhatsApp and SMS messages that are used to canvass support, whip up fear, spread rumours or simply distribute completely unsubstantiated facts.

"You know what?" a leading editor told me recently when I moderated panel on television rating points for news channels. "The UP elections are not being fought on TV but on WhatsApp."

WhatsApp has a tell-tale culture where people use the expression "Forwaded as received" to dissociate themselves from news items but the damage is done when it goes viral. Personal attacks on corruption, misconduct and qualifications are accompanied by or sometimes embedded into jokes to aid propaganda and involve "agents" who spread such items.

The holiest of journalistic methods - sourcing and independent verification - are absent from all three categories of fake news in India.

Trump and NYT are having a debate that often involves emphasis and point of view but the game gets more vicious in India where rumours, morphed videos and downright lies take centre-stage.

From the Election Commission to the Press Council of India, we could do with more monitoring of what is happening on the ground. Paid news is passe when compared to fake news in India.

The author is a senior journalist. He tweets as @madversity

Published Date: Mar 06, 2017 02:24 pm | Updated Date: Mar 06, 2017 02:24 pm