Cover Story/ Fake News: Subverting the Truth
Organiser   01-May-2018

Fake news is a threat to the credibility of the media as a whole. If people start believing in fake news, as happened in the US polls, it can deeply hurt the democracy

K G Suresh




Fake news today is an issue over which the entire country, the civil society, the academia and the media are deeply concerned. It has the potential to tear apart our fragile social fabric and can also affect the unity and integrity of the country. It is a threat not just to the media, but also to the democracy at large. It would be unfair to say that the fake news is there only on social media or online media. We have instances right from the early days of yellow journalism. Yellow journalism was all about the fake news. When the media would concoct stories and fake sting operations, that was also fake news. So, I don’t think the fake news is a new phenomenon. It is only that the phenomenon is now being replicated across the media spectrum from print to electronic and online.
Fake news can, in fact, emanate from different sources. One type is which is being generated by BPO kind of operations. The whole idea is to create fake news so as to attract eyeballs, readership or to a particular website so that it can result in resource generation in terms of hits and viewership. Whichever company or online portal indulges in it, it gets benefits in terms of advertisements. So, that is a resource generation methodology also. In the West also you have a lot of behind the curtain operations and such fake news is floated.
Secondly, you have the fake news which is deliberately floated as part of propaganda. It can be about the political or ideological opponents. The whole idea is to mislead the people. One instance is the recent protest by some Dalit groups where fake news was floated through WhatsApp and other methods to say that the entire reservation has been abrogated by the government. Whereas what had happened was a Supreme Court verdict making certain amendments with regard to certain provisions of the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act. But it was projected as if the entire reservation has been done away with. All kinds of rumours were floated and we lost precious lives. When many protesters were asked by journalists why as to what they were protesting against they had no clue and most of them said reservation was being done away with, while it was contrary to what had happened. Interestingly, many of the strong provisions in the Act were brought in by the present government and the court had diluted some of the provisions because it was felt that it should not lead to an arbitrary arrest etc.
And the government of the day has challenged it also. They have filed an SLP in that regard. This is just an instance. We have so many instances in the past where a large number of people from the north-east had to overnight leave Bengaluru because some morphed photographs from Myanmar were circulated. That was fake news which had long-term social consequences. It is with great difficulty that we are in the integration process of bringing the people of mainland and northeast together. Unfortunately, the vested interests are playing a very dirty game in this. You have political propaganda which is being projected as news.
The third category of fake news is through the paid news. I remember during the Punjab and Maharashtra elections, not the recent one but earlier ones when the Election Commission (EC) came with a code and made paid news detrimental to democracy. Till then you had news items on the front page saying that a particular public meeting was very successful. Whereas in the inside page you had a news report from your own correspondent that the particular meeting was a failure. Similarly, there was news that a particular candidate is winning but the real news was that the particular candidate was going to be defeated. Basically, the voters were being misled and the readers were being cheated. And the safe instances of advertorials were not being followed. The EC had taken strong cognizance of that. But still, there are many instances of paid news which say a lot about products, parties or individuals. That is actually cheating and betraying the confidence of readership or viewership.
Another instance which is very important which I as a media educator, am deeply concerned about is the growing lack of research in media. Evidence-based reporting which is the hallmark of journalism is sadly missing. It may be because we have a 24X7X365 work schedule. Your channels demand a lot of time, more and more stories so you are coming with the stories without doing substantial research. That is creating problems. There was a rumour that there can be a major earthquake in Delhi. It was contrary to the facts. There was no scientific basis for that rumour. But a lot of people got scared and many thought of shifting from the city. And these kinds of panic are always there whenever there was a natural calamity.
So, how do you deal with them? That is because the reporters concerned are not doing the work seriously. It is not that the mainstream media always say that it has nothing to do with the fake news and it is the online media. Remember the baked news in The Indian Express about the Army Coup in Delhi. It was a banner headline story that the army wanted to carry out a coup in this country. We have one of the most democratic armed forces which have a deep-rooted faith in democracy. It is the most professional army in the world. Now to attribute this kind of motive to a professional army is virtually demoralising. That shakes the very foundation of our democracy. But that has happened and is worrying.
Research in the media has been replaced with Google search. Journalists are not doing fundamental research and they are not trying to go deep in the things. What we were taught in our schools of journalism, I have practised for three decades. There was always a cross-check and cross verification of facts. Today that is not there. And that leads to fake news. When you go by one single source and you do not cross verify, there is a reason to believe that the source can have a vested interest. And they could be planting a story. I am myself is a victim of it. So many fake stories were planted about IIMC. When a contract employee was terminated because of misbehaviour it was projected that he was a professor of the institution. It was great kind of fake news.
People indulge in the fake news because they do not do spot reporting. Today desktop reporting has become a fashion. They are not going to the field. Today you have the technology. But that does not prevent you to go to the field. I think today journalism is all about field reporting. You have to go and hit the ground. That is not happening. People try to outsource the story and in that process lot of fiction gets mixed with facts and you end up with a fake news. So, it is important that you have fact-based and evidence-based spot reporting.
One of the biggest sources of fake news is WhatsApp. I am certainly not in favour of state regulation. But we should not be having a holier than Thou attitude. As the fourth pillar of democracy, you have a responsibility to the society. We need to inculcate that sense in the younger generation. We need to tell them that you have liberty but not license.
We as a citizen, reader or viewer also have a responsibility. It is not the responsibility of the media alone. People like and share any video put up on the social media without giving a thought. Sometimes we do in the greed that if like and share my friends today that will like and share my post tomorrow. In fact, when we receive any message we should think if it can be true?
The biggest fake news recently was that the Rs 2000 note is having a chip. Is it practical to put a chip in such a huge currency? Can a chip work without a battery? We should apply our common sense. The common man has to apply the mind otherwise he/she will be a victim of fake news. The elections are around the corner and this is the time when a lot of fake news will be circulated and the electorate has to be vigilant about it. I am told that Facebook has started helping in containing the fake news during Karnataka elections. It doesn’t know how much they will succeed. But certainly, it is a good initiative, if the social media platforms are making genuine efforts to curtail fake news.
Fake news is a threat to the credibility of the media as a whole. If people start believing in fake news, as happened in the US polls it has the potential to hit their circulation and credibility. It also deeply hurt democracy. An informed and enlightened public opinion is the prerequisite for democracy. If it is sought to be manipulated or circumvented through fake news then it is a threat to democracy itself.
(The writer is Director General of Indian Institute of Mass Communication. As told to Raghvendra Kumar)