India Misinformed: Read an excerpt from new book which aims to identify purveyors of fake news, expose propaganda
India Misinformed: The True Story is written by the team of Alt News, a fact-checking website that debunks fake information – and edited by Pratik Sinha, Dr Sumaiya Shaikh and Arjun Sidharth.
The propaganda of misinformation and hoaxes disseminated through print, graphics, and social media has altered the social landscape of this nation. It has led to multiple cases of lynching, mob violence, defamation and riots, and continues to pose a serious threat to Indian democracy.
India Misinformed: The True Story, written by the team of Alt News, a fact-checking website that debunks fake information – and edited by Pratik Sinha, Dr Sumaiya Shaikh and Arjun Sidharth – identifies the purveyors of fabricated news, exposes the propaganda machinery and familiarises readers with techniques to detect these menacing stories.
Pratik Sinha is the co-founder of Alt News, where Dr Sumaiya Shaikh, a neuroscientist, is the science editor. Arjun Sidharth is a writer with website. He has previously worked in the television news industry. India Misinformed is published in India by HarperCollins.
The following is an excerpt from the introduction of the book, written by Sinha.
In the run-up to the 2014 general elections in India, an image of a swanky bus stop was circulated claiming that it was the Bus Rapid Transport System from Ahmedabad. The objective of the tweet was to showcase the ‘Gujarat Model’ but in reality, the image was not from Ahmedabad, but from Guangzhou in China. The person who shared this image reportedly went on to hold an authoritative position in his new professional role after the 2014 elections. Today, the phrase ‘fake news’ is a commonly used one in most urban and semi-urban households. However, it is often said that the practice of using social media to mislead the populace at large for political propaganda had already begun in India in 2012-13.
In the month of August 2015, a website that displayed a strong affiliation to a certain religion was registered. The founder of this website put up a video in 2016 promoting blogging as a business idea. In this video, he claimed that his websites got twelve to fifteen million hits a month. This video also featured a screenshot of the owner’s ad revenue, which would show an incremental increase every time someone clicked on one of the several ads embedded within the articles on the portal. In one of its articles, the portal had posted a video claiming that a man from a majority community was murdered by members of a minority community, and Indian media was silent about it. This was in the backdrop of a cattle trader, Pehlu Khan, being lynched in Alwar, Rajasthan. The video was actually from Bangladesh and had no element of inter-religious conflict. This owner of the portal seemed to have figured out two objectives in one go – political propaganda and financial gains.
The growth of such websites happened at the same time as when internet usage in India saw a steep rise. In June 2016, India as a country was reportedly using 200 million GB of data per month. By March 2017, this figure had increased to 1.3 billion – an increase of six and a half times in a space of nine months. Internet was now reaching the farthest corners of this country. Usually, such growth would bring unlimited cheer. After all, the Internet is an enormously empowering technology. However, while online websites providing door-to-door services and Internet banking services flourished, a tragedy struck in May 2017.
A picture of Mohammed Naeem, begging for his life with folded hands, his face dripping with blood, shirt ripped and his vest soaked in blood was splashed across several newspapers on 19 May 2017. Naeem, along with six other people, was lynched to death in Jharkhand after child kidnapping rumours went viral on WhatsApp. A Hindi text (translated) that was circulated via WhatsApp claimed, ‘Suspected child lifters are carrying sedatives, injections, spray, cotton and small towels. They speak Hindi, Bangla and Malayalam. If you happen to see any stranger near your house, immediately inform local police as he could be a member of the ‘child-lifting gang’.
The fear of losing one’s own child had caused people to come out on the street and lynch seven people, none of whom had committed any crime. Had internet come with a handbook, just the way the cooking stove in your home does, these seven people might have been alive today and over a dozen people would not have been jailed for the crime. What caused these murders? An absolute lack of Internet literacy.
Misinformation peaks during certain times. Elections see a surge in false claims and accusations by rival political parties while any form of communal disturbance leads to fake news that seeks to further polarize communities. During the West Bengal riots, a still from a movie was widely circulated as a picture of a Hindu woman being molested by Muslims.
With multiple fact-checking websites working in tandem, prominent accounts on social media which had previously put out multiple instances of misinformation became vigilant. However, anonymous accounts started becoming the seeds of misinformation, especially on Twitter. At that same time, multiple Facebook pages came up and started churning out propaganda in a very professional manner which included quality infographics and videos. Alt News also discovered Facebook groups that were a dedicated marketplace for buying and selling of political Facebook pages. Themes such as the Indian Army, cricket players such as Virendra Sehwag, politicians such as Narendra Modi and Yogi Adityanath were seemingly common for these Facebook political pages. Quite a few of these pages had over a million followers and were apparently sold at hefty prices.
While misinformation was on the rise, instead of becoming allies, mainstream media became a part of the problem. While the misinformation on social media often comes from a position of malice, misreports in mainstream media was as if a function of the business model adopted by several Indian media outlets. Thanks to tight deadlines with pressures of producing unending content for web portals and 24x7 TV channels, fact-checking was done away with.
The most disturbing trend in this rise of fake news is the patronage it receives from political parties. Fake news doesn’t exist in a vacuum. To thrive, it needs support not just from those who fall for it but also from those who benefit the most from it. Several Twitter users who routinely spread misinformation are followed by union ministers and in many cases, even the prime minister of the country seems to be doing so. Many of them proudly display their pictures with the leaders on their profiles. If misinformation continues to get political patronage, the fake news ecosystem will continue to flourish.
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