The Fake News problem in India can get out of hand if not controlled in due time; experts tell us why

Mark Zuckerberg has just sent out a really long letter, 5,800 words if you are keeping a word count, focussing on building a global community. He touches upon the need to have a 'social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us.' To help develop this social infrastructure, Zuckerberg outlined the need to have supportive, safe, informed, civically-engaged and inclusive communities.

Addressing the elephant in the room

Fake news or post-truth, is a phenomenon that has been a trend for quite a while now. Facebook's algorithms have certainly given it a push, as have also many other social media networks where fake news is propagated. But other social media networks do not have what Facebook does – its 1.86 bn strong community. The means that the after effects of a piece of fake news going viral on Facebook is far different from that happening on other platforms.

Image: Reuters

Image: Reuters

There were even allegations of the spread of fake news on Facebook being responsible for the election of Donald Trump as the US President. An allegation that Zuckerberg termed as crazy.

But he has eventually got around to addressing the issue of the spread of fake news. In his letter, Zuckerberg has extensively touched upon the issue.

"Social media already provides more diverse viewpoints than traditional media ever has. Even if most of our friends are like us, we all know people with different interests, beliefs and backgrounds who expose us to different perspectives. Compared with getting our news from the same two or three TV networks or reading the same newspapers with their consistent editorial views, our networks on Facebook show us more diverse content.

But our goal must be to help people see a more complete picture, not just alternate perspectives. We must be careful how we do this," says Zuckerberg.

WhatsApp – a hotbed for the spread of fake news


If I had a rupee for every time someone shared a ridiculous forward with false facts, and posed them as genuine news items by throwing in believable names and designations, then I would be a rich man today. WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, is a more private network in the sense that you cannot search for WhatsApp conversations or statuses as you can do with Facebook, Twitter and other social media networks.

But it is within these closed groups that spread of rumours and falsities has seen an exponential rise over the years. And unlike Facebook, the origins of these WhatsApp forwards are hard to track. There are 160 mn WhatsApp users in India, which is more than its owner Facebook, which stands at 155 mn.

In September 2016, the Mumbai Police registered an FIR after a false, inflammatory message was being circulated on WhatsApp. While the law does not have a specific mention of fake news as such, there are measures to get perpetrators to book, although the conviction rates are negligible.

"The law does not mention the word fake news anywhere. But since a lot of fake news is generated on electronic platforms – phones, computers, social media and so on – it gets covered under existing laws. When you disseminate fake news – publishing or transmitting as well as causing to be published in an electronic form, information which is likely to corrupt the minds of people, then it is an offence under Section 67 of the IT act. This involves three years imprisonment and a Rs 5 lakh fine," said Pavan Duggal, advocate, Supreme Court of India and cyberlaw expert. But he says that since it is a bailable offence and lack of people following through after initial complaints, there are very few convictions.

Declining tolerance levels

We all know about the infamous 'nano-GPS chip' fake story which was a fake forward going around on WhatsApp, and which was picked up by a legitimate local TV station as genuine news. While this may certainly have gotten a lot of laughs, there have been cases where the consequences of the spread of fake news have been serious.


Mohammad Akhlaq, a farm worker, was murdered by a mob in his village in Uttar Pradesh in late 2015 when it emerged that some villagers claimed to have seen photos on WhatsApp messages which allegedly showed that Akhlaq had slaughtered a cow. This was fake news which became viral in the village, and people considered it to be the truth. This was around the time when the govt put a ban on eating beef. The reality was Akhlaq's family had stored mutton and not beef. But an innocent was killed because a rumour spread on social networks and enraged a mob.

Perspective from an Indian newsroom

"There's intentionally fake (like WhatsApp forwards or tweets about riots, scams, etc.) and accidentally fake (the sort fuelled by a typo or mistaken identity) news. We come across the latter quite often in a week, but the former, less frequent, pops up at least once a week," said a senior Firstpost editor. According to him, spreading fake news is not a new phenomenon, but has also been seen during natural disasters such as the Mumbai floods (2005) as well as during terror attacks such as 26/11 (2008).

Identifying fake news and preventing the propagation of the same is definitely a responsibility area for most newsrooms. Fake news in itself is not a new phenomenon, although it has seen an uptick off late and one comes across it on a regular basis.

According to the editor, there are times when even mainstream news organisations take the bait. The Jasleen Kaur story is one that springs to mind. This was an example of how media organisations jumped to conclusions after a Delhi University student Jasleen Kaur, alleged that a man named Sarabjit Singh harassed her verbally. A reporter from a mainstream media house actually went ahead and pronounced the accused guilty, before the case was even verified. It turns out that the allegations made by the Delhi University student were false, thanks to an eyewitness who came ahead and said that the whole story was fabricated.

"Technology (in this case, social media) cannot be good or bad. It is just how we use the information which is out there. During these times of fast-paced news, media organisations have to look inwards and be aware of the moral responsibility that rests on their shoulders. The reportage, as we have seen several times in the past, has the potential to make or break a case," said this opinion piece.

"I have read fake news mostly on social media sites and on WhatsApp. I haven't really come across fake news in print or television, but I have certainly come across news that are not entirely true. Unconfirmed rumours or half truths are made into news," says Dharmendra Jore, secretary, Mumbai Press Club and political editor of Mid-Day.

According to Jore, Press Club of India does get its fair share of complaints that deal with libel, where the complainants think that information published about them is defamatory in nature. That also technically comes under the gamut of 'fake news'.

According to Duggal, if a fake news is used to cheat or malign someone's reputation, then it becomes an offence under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) section 468 which pertains to electronic forgery and carries a sentence of 7 years imprisonment.

The election period is when there is a high possibility of the spreading of fake news, according to Jore. "Recently, some photos of a community feast were captioned as 'Recreation of TN MLAs' who were lodged in a resort. When seen carefully, it turned out that the pictures were of some community feast and of a person drinking at a roadside garden restaurant," said Jore.

Measures that can be taken

According to the Firstpost senior editor, it is impossible to immediately identify if a news is fake or not. "So we generally look for other sources to corroborate the news. If there are none, we then see if this particular bit of news has been debunked elsewhere," he said.

"These days videos and tapes are shared, but we have no immediate measure available to verify their authenticity. One should deal very carefully with unverified digital information, such as social media posts (video / pictures), Facebook statuses, comments and tweets," said Jore.

If you still need convincing, then you should read our 'Reading news on the internet for dummies' guide, which has some insights on how to not fall prey to fake news. Here we touch upon identifying sources, corroborating them, separating a news report from a feature from an opinion, identifying clickbait, identifying biases and much more.

Representational image

Sure there are means to report fake news which have the potential to cause riots or tension by flagging them. If you want to go through the legal route, then you could approach your nearest cyber cell unit to report the source of the fake news. But a lot of people avoid it entirely.

"There has to be a quicker redressal mechanism with regards to fake news. In many instances, people do not file cases with the cyber crime cell because of the long, tedious legal process involved," said Duggal. He also foresees an exponential increase in the propagation of fake news in the years to come as more and more Indians get online.

"So many Indians have virtually no idea of due diligence before forwarding what could be an offensive message or a rumour. Also the lack of convictions really matters. It gives a lot of people a feeling that they can get away with such exercises," said Duggal.

A good start, but there are miles to go...

It is good to see Zuckerberg finally acknowledging the issue and taking corrective measures. In the past Google and Facebook have taken a stand against news sites peddling fake news – by not allowing them to use the online advertising services. The main reason a lot of the fake news sites cropped up was due to the ad revenue that was generated due to the traffic these sites would amass.

This is a good starting point. But as more people come online, especially in India, the problems associated with fake news are also going to increase proportionally. So it is always a good idea to be well prepared to address the issue, before it becomes a cause for untoward incidents.

Published Date: Feb 17, 2017 16:51 PM | Updated Date: Feb 17, 2017 16:51 PM