The most disturbing trend in the rise of fake news is the patronage it receives from political parties
Misinformation was weaponized to target individuals such as journalists, activists, liberals and anyone who was critical of the right-wing ecosystem. Misinformation was also enthusiastically used to make misleading claims about the achievements of the union government. We saw fake endorsements of PM Modi by international leaders and a piece of misleading news about a Nobel laureate applauding demonetization.
In the first year [of Alt News], a large majority of misinformation came from the right-wing camp in India, but in the last twelve months, the non-RW political ecosystem has started to increasingly contribute to the spread of misinformation.
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 24×7 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.
Apart from politically motivated misinformation, messaging and social media platforms are also flooded with misinformation about medicine, health and science. Alt News started its science fact-check section in April 2017. Since then, we have focused on fact-checking medical misinformation that is circulated in various forms, from misleading alternative medicine therapies to pseudo-scientific assertions. The ‘Preface to the Science Section’ will throw more light on this effort.
The sample messages used in this book are produced in order to cite examples of how fake news is circulated. The facts mentioned here intend to critique and initiate an important discourse on the harms of presumably accepting available information. This anthology is compiled without any intention of malice or harm. We hope readers will be discerning and refrain from misusing the information available in this book.
This book is an attempt to bring together prominent examples of misinformation that were circulated in the past two years.
Excerpted with permission from India Misinformed: The True Story, HarperCollins India. Price ₹ 399.
To buy the book click here.
[Cover picture: Scene from a Bhojpuri film – showing a man forcibly pulling a woman’s saree – was shared on social media claiming it had happened in Basirhat and Baduria in 2017]