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Fake News: The Fourth Pillar of Indian Democracy

One phenomenon, debatably recent, that is turning dreadfully malignant these days is the one that seems to be ignored of its potential. Digital illiteracy and resulting from this the prevalence and alarming rise of Fake News.

Today India is evidently in a very sad state of affairs, fighting numerous health hazards, socio-economic setbacks, the inefficiency of the government and state authorities, and needless to add, the ubiquitous Indian problems like unemployment and lack of social security. However, one phenomenon, debatably recent, that is turning dreadfully malignant these days is the one that seems to be ignored of its potential. Digital illiteracy and resulting from this the prevalence and alarming rise of Fake News.

We celebrate the fact that India has become globally digital-active and that is for sure a good indicator of development. But the counter-fact is so dangerous and yet is usually turned a blind eye on. And now that the entire nation is shaken and shattered by this menace of Covid and its every new variant, the spread of Fake news now needs containment more than ever.

Let us have a quick recap on how fake news and digital illiteracy have expanded and jeopardized social integrity and how they are turning to be a greater threat than Covid itself today. The millennials and youth can relate more to a storyline approach, and this is exactly why we should look at this phenomenon from a web-series approach. Here is how the story flows:

Episode 1: Fake News and its Propagation.

India is the largest market for WhatsApp, with over 230 million users, and as a result, it is one of the main platforms on which fake news is spread. And the fact that WhatsApp is greatly becoming popular among the older generation now, this generation has very little exposure to digital literacy and fact-check mechanisms which leads them to believe anything and everything that they receive as forwards. This forward system continues and spreads like wildfire, and consequently becomes “information” that slowly turns to be official. And this is dangerous as the information here becomes “High on emotion, low on facts”. Here is a story:

In the year 2018, and on 13th July of that year, a group of five friends decide to take a road trip for a picnic to Karnataka to a village called Handikera (Fact: They were all Muslims). One of them was from Qatar and he had some chocolates with him. As they were on the way to the picnic spot, they came by some school children and this Qatar guy offered them chocolates as a friendly gesture. This attracted the villagers’ attention, and needless to say, those villagers were “WhatsApp educated” and were sure instantly that this a kidnapping attempt and child-trafficking crime by the “Muslim Outsiders”. They approached the car and started deflating the tires and hurling abuses on the friends. The friends realized sooner that this is not a good time, and they began escaping. But no, this does not end here. The villagers clicked photos and shared this “information” of misdeed through WhatsApp to their friends. In no time a mob of hundreds got to this place, pulled out two of the friends from the car and killed one of the friends, and injured all other four. This man was a father, a software engineer from Hyderabad, and the lone earner of bread in the family! His name was Azam. Police came and witnessed the ruckus. Azam was not the only innocent to die due to misinformation spread on child trafficking. In the first half of 2018, more than a dozen people die of similar incidents in India.

(Fact-Check: This is a true story that was covered in The Washington Post and has police records)

Episode 2: CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) -2019.

The Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 was passed by the Parliament of India on 11 December 2019.

And then it was followed by protests from different sections of the societies and political parties including student unions.

The CAA Protests has led to a flooding of fake news and evidently manipulated information on social media where the target was the protester. Supporters of the ruling government and even some official MPs were seen to be sharing videos, falsely claiming that the students of Aligarh Muslim University were raising anti-Hindu slogans, whereas there is no credible source or video that indicates the same. The Supreme Court of India asked the central government of India to consider “a plea for publicizing aims, objectives and the benefits of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) to weed out fake news that was being circulated on the issue. Then the leaders of the largest political party of India rolled out a phone number, asking people to give a missed call to show support for the act. The number was widely shared on Twitter, with fake claims luring people with companionship with lonely women and free subscriptions to streaming platforms like Netflix.

Now cut to our neighbors Pakistan. Indian security and intelligence agencies reportedly identified around 5000 social media handle from Pakistan which was “spreading fake and false propaganda” on CAA, some using “deep fake videos” in the process. An attempt to carefully inject “tension” in the Indian administration mechanism, which they are habituated since eternity to do.

Episode 3: Thriller (Covid 19 Situation) and Fake news.

In Indore, a team of doctors, health workers, and revenue officials were assigned the task of identifying the family members of a 65-year-old man who died of Covid, in order to ensure the family member’s safety protocol and making sure if Covid-appropriate measures were adopted. This entire group was attacked in Indore on April 2, after fake videos claimed that healthy Muslims were being taken away and injected with the virus, reiterating the dangers and physical manifestations of misinformation.

When India reported its first COVID-19 case on 30 January, the entire social media space of the country reportedly experienced a massive hike in the propagation of serious information in the form of videos, short interviews, interviews of health professionals, and doctors related to the new virus and its characteristics. If reiterated, the first prominent fake information included videos and podcasts of home remedies of Vitamin C warding off the virus and those were created by YouTube video creators who don’t have any credibility nor qualification on Virus-related diseases.

Now before the Fact-Checking websites and Govt. authorities could possibly contain this threat of misinformation spread, hundreds of thousands of fake messages that included the catchy and appealing videos of miracle power of cow urine, or Gaumutra, to cure this Covid began to show up on most prominent social medial platform. Again, backed by certain religious organizations and trusts, this information that cow urine can impeccably cure Covid, gained momentum like the speed of light. World Health Organization (WHO) and various Indian reputed and authorized organizations like ICMR repeatedly warned against this and even officially circulated notifications stating that consumption of cow urine or anything of that sort will increase fungal infections rather than curing Covid.

Episode 4 (Season Finale): Why Fake News can be India’s greatest Villain of all time?

The grip of fake news, digital illiteracy can be considered more lethal in India rather than any other country of the same league. This is large because of the fact that India’s social media base and usage of apps like WhatsApp and Twitter is rapidly growing followed by the downward-sloping regulation of social media platforms. Today in the world, we have as many as 376 million people who are used to all kinds of social media platforms, and India is on the radar of most social media companies with a rapidly growing internet base. But on the other side of the coin, we have the fact that the Indian population is greatly vulnerable to the lethal effects of fake news, because of this inherent culture of “conformism”. From the very beginning of the great Indian civilization, we are taught from toddler-time that conformism is Indian culture. Listen to what the mandate is and don’t question that, since the mandate is good for everyone, and questioning this is blasphemy. Although in terms of Fidelity, India is way ahead in free thoughts and self-development of the thinking process than all of the Asian countries, yet this conformism has turned bigger. And this is the actual threat. In these turbulent times of the Covid Pandemic, the total death toll almost reaching the 400, 000 mark, any sort of misinformation and adherence to that can cause death, evidently. The use of Steroids from WhatsApp forwards to get cured of Covid and ignoring the co-morbidities resulted in the deaths of hundreds already.

Add On (Some Statistics):

Here is a super factual statistic on fake news in India.

Statista, a renowned statistical analysis website published a report relating to the Exposure of fake news across India in 2019. The figures are awful. A whopping 45% of the respondents in a survey say that fake news is propagated as the stories that are completely made up for political or commercial gains. And 39% of them respond that facts are always spun and twisted to push a particular agenda of a group.

A research article by Joyojeet Pal of the University of Michigan says that “it was found that a rise in the number of debunked misinformation, especially following the third week of March. The momentum of misinformation had already started an upward trajectory before PM Narendra Modi’s announcement of the Janata Curfew, though since that week, the increase has been consistent”.

The same study was expanded in terms of initial classification to encompass the broad themes that defined the various kinds of misinformation being spread. There were 62 instances where the misinformation was based on Culture, 37 were on Cure, Prevention, and Treatment, and a whopping 54 instances were on the Government. This statistical explanation can go on for quite some long pages but let’s cut it down here.

So conclusively it can be said that India is fighting two viruses at the same time now.; one being the real and the other being the fake news but both are equally lethal. Governments, authorities, bureaucrats, and all levels of administrative hierarchy are facing hurdles to contain the second menace, but won’t be able to resist if the digital literacy of the population of this country is ignored. Although there are reports that the social media companies such as Google, Facebook, and other intermediary platforms have decided to create an Information Trust Alliance (ITA) to tackle fake content, this hardly has any potential to check the spread of misinformation given the pace of spread and the lack of digital identification and compliance. The only vaccine to this virus of fake news is that the Government take steps to educate people digitally, create fact-checking bodies with substantial autonomy, and that in itself should not indulge in this practice of false information for political incentives.

The views and opinions expressed by the writer are personal and do not necessarily reflect the official position of VOM.
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