The Social media menace: Rising trend of fake news in India

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An era in India, where the social networking sites and apps are rapidly making ways into the life of the masses, the people are falling prey to a twisted side of the virtual world. Technology, a provider of knowledge and information, is now a source to circulate altered and manipulated data content without any checks and filters. This rising trend of spreading fake news through platforms like whatsapp, facebook, twitter, youtube etc. has created an alarming situation within the country. Not just the social networking, but many Indian media channels have also picked up this trend of presenting half-truths and dodgy footages.

It is our pride to believe that the democratic India enjoys a freedom of speech and expression, but when the same freedom gets misused to disorient the masses and entice them against an individual, group or organization, the law and order receives a setback. This article brings together some of the worst scenarios and repercussions of sharing fake news in the country which led to spread of wrong information, disrespect, uncalled defamation, hatred and in some cases, violence among citizens.

In 2016, the students of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) became the major headlines after the events of alleged anti-national slogans raised in protests against the execution of Afzal Guru in 2013, who was the 2001 Parliament attack main convict. The student body President Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested under sedition charges in that case. One of their rally videos showcased voices shouting “Pakistan Zindabad” in public for which a forensic probe was performed by the Delhi police. However, different channels still show contradictory information on the report. Some claim that the video was doctored and voices were added, and some claim it to be genuine and punishable. In such a case, it gets difficult for the viewers to choose their reliable information source.

The Times of India group received major criticism in March 2017, when they published misleading and unverified news in the missing case of Najeeb Ahmed, a research scholar from JNU, labelling him an ISIS sympathizer based on the claims that Delhi police tracked his google and youtube browsing history containing data and videos on the terrorist organization. Following this revelation, many media channels and papers took up the story and it was later verified by the Delhi police commissioner, that no such internet tracking was performed by his team. (The Wire, 2017)

Another strange trend that had been taken up by the internet and certain media channels was the “Nostradamus prophecy”. Nostradamus (Michel de Nostradame) was a French astrologer and physician who wrote a collection of prophecies during his lifetime. His predictions were lauded in the cases of French revolution, rise of Adolf Hitler etc. However, people around the world have developed a trend to associate any popular leadership to his list of prophecies. In early 2017, a blog called “Nostradamus in India” gained attention when it got recognized by the Times of India group and Zee News. (Their feature stories were later removed). The author of the blog, FranÇois Gautier, based his information on some hidden manuscripts which Nostradamus used to predict the rise of Narendra Modi in the 21st century India. The blog talked about birth of “Narendrus” in the state of Gujarat who would transform the country. As Modi enjoys an outstanding majority and popularity among the masses, it was believable for many, that such prophecy may have been made and the story got commonly shared on internet. Also, News channels made the story sound more realistic and revolutionary through appealing visuals. In Gautier’s 2009 blog, he quoted about the leaders from Bharatiya Janata Party- “…Politicus Bharatus Janatus Indicus tri pillarus est, Vajpayum, Advanum et Murlum Joshum…” (Newslaundry, 2017). This language, which seems rather alien, talked about Atal Bihari Vajpayee, LK Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi being the three pillars of the Bharatiya Janata Party. However, truth didn’t stay afar, as investigative reports (including Alt News) soon found out the unoriginal work of Gautier and faux ideas propagated with no establishment of a tangible proof.

In April 2017, a video got viral on all news channels and whatsapp, showing a man tied to the Army jeep and paraded across villages in Kashmir. Initially the news got spread in a way that, internet acknowledged the person as a stone pelter who was rightfully punished by the Indian Army. The video got transferred rapidly across networks, as stone-pelting in Kashmir is a major controversial issue occurring since years. Major Leetul Gogoi of the Indian Army claimed that he was the leader of stone pelters, however, there were varied interpretations. Several channels, later, uncovered the true story of the person, who was identified as Farooq Dar, a shawl weaver from Chil village in Budgam district of Kashmir. Maximum Reports confirmed that he was used as a “human shield” by the jawans to send a message against stone-pelting. Dar told the media, that he was attacked that day when he was out, for casting a vote and was on his way to Gampora village to attend a condolence meeting of his relative.

Stone-pelters ought to be punished, but Farooq Dar was proven to be an innocent man. This led to major wave of sympathy for the victim and a national uproar on the debate of rightful justice.

A whatsapp message took its toll across India in May 2017, which warned about child kidnappers roaming around streets with sedatives, injections, sprays etc. who could speak hindi, bangla and malyali. Though there was no backing to this alert, it caused widespread panic in parts of Jharkhand. This led to villagers getting extra suspicious and violent and ended up lynching 10 men. This horrifying case brought forward the dark side of internet sharing and repercussions of spreading fake news. In a different case of whatsapp misuse, a warning message got circulated, that if one receives a call from 777888999, his/her phone will explode. Even if the idea sounded ridiculous, people actually got threatened and forwarded it as much as possible. Later it was confirmed by reports that there was no such “Death call”. Our phone was safe, and so were we!

A recent exaggerated and rather mind-boggling instance came along with the demonetization drive and the issuance of new 2000-rupee notes after 8th November 2016. This new addition created a huge surge in the country and opportunists started spreading news about the technological benefits of the note and the presence of nano chip for tracking a particular note through GPS. A video got circulated on whatsapp about a man explaining the features of the note which were all a hoax in reality. As a result of curiosity or mockery, people actively shared the video which got popular and added to the troubles of the government in falsifying the claims for a long time.

Amidst this fake news chaos spreading across social networks, a ray of hope for citizens are the websites who are exposing the fake news trend on twitter, whatsapp, facebook, youtube, other media channels etc. One of the well-known sources is “Alt News” which strives to bring out the true story, going in depth of all controversial news. It was founded by Mr. Pratik Sinha. Alt news has uncovered several false tweets and facebook posts. Viewers came to know about several cases where people have used the support of photoshop software or foreign clips and photos for their benefit and creating an imaginary scenario. Other than Alt News, there is “SM Hoax Slayer”, created by Mr. Pankaj Jain and check4spam.com by Mr. Shammas Oliyath who are doing an excellent work in debunking viral messages and bringing truth to the people on daily basis. These tech-savvies have helped bust a major hoax content especially pertaining to spread of anti-Muslim hatred through photoshopped images. One common tool, used by these professionals and also easily accessible to common public is the Google reverse image search, which tracks down the source of an image. If we upload any photoshopped or tampered image for investigation, it shows all the possible sources of that photo or its similar version.

Fake news continues to pose several challenges for the Government, common public and Law and Order machineries. Many times they get promoted as a result of “paid news” when defaming someone is the main agenda. Online accounts are getting hacked to virtually assassinate an individual or group. Hacking can be tackled only with counter-hacking. India’s team of ethical hackers have a major role to contribute in limiting the spread of fake news within a short time and with lesser hassles. Rumour-mongers need to be tracked down from the roots through an advanced network of tracking devices. If the actual perpetrators receive appropriate punishment, this disastrous trend would slow down. News channels should not be spared, if they are misusing their power.

Internet is a vulnerable space. Especially, the new Whatsapp end-to-end encryption makes it more complicated to track each source of fake news. However, if the sources are successfully tracked, it needs to be ensured that lakhs of innocent people are not framed simply for sharing or forwarding a message, because in maximum cases they are the victims of misinformation. There needs to be a developed mechanism of checks and balance for ensuring transfer and propaganda of authentic news stories without any scope for external manipulation of truth.