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Deadly consequences of fake news: When WhatsApp becomes the paper of record

More urgent question for a democracy is why we seem so eager to believe what shows up on the phone

Sandip Roy 

Sandip Roy
Sandip Roy

Not long ago a journalist acquaintance shared a “BBC” survey ranking the as the fourth most corrupt in the world. The Congress might well be a den of corruption but there is no BBC survey proving it. This was from something deviously called BBC News Point akin to Ashwathama elephant. The list also included parties that had not existed since such as the Nazi Party in Germany and the Nationalist Fascist Party in Italy but that did not faze the journalist who shared it.  The survey fit neatly with his worldview and that was fact-checking enough for him. The BBC might not have done it, he said, but that did not mean the survey was fake. What surprised me was not that he had fallen for a hoax, for who among us is immune to that, but the defiance with which he clung to it.

By then the story had gone viral. Once that happens the weight of sheer numbers gives a weight of its own. So it’s no surprise that sooner or later the boundaries between and real news collapse. Thus evening television shows in India held impassioned discussions about whether actor-MP was justified in wanting to use writer as a human shield. Facebook pages of news websites that had carried Roy’s latest incendiary interview on were flashed on television as proof of her provocation.

Except as The Wire showed, the interview came from a site that had then been reproduced on other sites, each new URL conferring upon it a stamp of legitimacy. In the echo chamber of that alt-fact universe, Roy had visited Srinagar in the second week of May and given interviews to The Times of Islamabad. The real Roy had done none of these things. But that’s just a minor detail as irrelevant as Barack Obama’s birth certificate. By now the story had pivoted. Even if this interview was fake, Roy’s critique of India’s policy was not. And thus becomes, if not truth, something that is true enough.

Once that echo chamber is forged it’s difficult to dismantle. Veteran journalist Mark Tully had to write a blog disavowing comments he supposedly made lauding the changes in Narendra Modi’s India in his book. That book came out in 1992 long before Modi had come to power. This was based on shoddy homework. But the fact that so many people shared it also showed that has real power.

As a term, sounds mischievous at worst, just a shade removed from the satire of Faking News. But it can have deadly consequences. A WhatsApp video of two boys being beaten fanned riots in Muzaffarnagar in 2013. The video was at least two years old and from Pakistan or Afghanistan but it did its dirty work. When the ironsmith was lynched in Dadri, a reporter found WhatsApp forwards of the meat and bones of the cow he had allegedly slaughtered.

Technology did not create but has certainly enabled its growth. As have politicians. Every time a minister talks about presstitutes and news traders, he gives the industry a little boost. Now the vicious cycle is complete. When mainstream media does news shows pegged to fake news, can it be called fake any more? Its fakeness becomes not a matter of fact but a matter of perception, something in the eye of the beholder.

The real crisis though is not that troublemakers spread via social media. The more urgent question for a democracy is why so many of us seem far more eager to believe what shows up on the phone over what shows up in our daily newspaper. When did WhatsApp become the paper of record? For decades we have been spoon-fed government propaganda in the guise of news. With liberalisation a digitally-addicted citizenry seems to have swung to the other extreme, ready to blindly accept any conspiracy theory, whether it’s about demonetisation or cattle-snatching, as long as it fits their biases.

Debunking will never be easy. A WhatsApp forward chain eludes the scrutiny of even a Facebook post. That creates a shadow media of sorts which is terrifying when you consider that India is WhatsApp’s biggest market with 160 million monthly active users. A government can burst the bubble and get the truth out if it has the inclination. A media house that fell for a story can own up to it and call a fake a fake even if it’s masquerading as a joke.

No one really thinks actually planned to strap to that Army jeep and use her as a human shield. It’s a joke. A crude joke but still a joke. Until one day it suddenly is not.
Sandip Roy is a journalist and the author of Don't Let Him Know

Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal. They do not reflect the view/s of Business Standard.