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Fake news is a sort of propaganda intended to mislead the audience; a kind of yellow journalism. Propaganda or fake news is not a new thing in the digital age. Power struggle between Octavian and Anthony wasaccompanied with the propaganda; Maulavi Muhammad Baqar was martyred for his spirited struggle against the British propaganda. Even, peeping in tothe religious echelons, we find that the Sufi master, Mansur Hallaj was hanged after shear propaganda of blasphemy against him.

Claire Wardle of First Draft News identifies fake news roaming on digit platforms in to two types: misinformation and disinformation. Misinformation includes that lot of fake news which is being shared and promoted inadvertently while disinformation is adeliberate propagation of factually fake news.

A kindergarten story of a rabbit claiming Aasman Gir RahaHai (The Sky is Falling), as I think, may well fall in the misinformation category while that of a prank boy deliberately shouting and asking the villagers daily to save him from a tiger is a disinformation!

Wardle further classify these as news with (a) satire or parody, (b) misleading content (c) imposter content with impersonated genuine sources (d) fabricated content (e) manipulated content (f) false connection (g) false context.

With the exponential surge in the production of information in the last couple of years, which snowballed further with the internet connectivity and social media platforms, fake news is found corrupting the political systems of efficient democracies like the United States and that of non-democratic nations like the People’s Republic of China. In case of India, challenges of fake news become more pronounced as India is far below than the US in digital literacy and less authoritative than China in enforcing state’scorrective measures.

Recent experiences round the globe show that fake news has been promoted either for political gains or for pecuniary profits. The story in 2016 titled, ‘Pope Francis shocks world, endorses Donald Trump for President’turned out to be false only after it had gathered 960,000 Facebook shares. In the US, a major pro-Trump campaign was launched on internet before the election by alternative media platforms other than what we call ‘legacy media’ or the ‘old media’ as is evident by an analysis of Breitbart’s Facebook timelinedone by VianBakir and Andrew McStay.

In Asia, the hotchpotch created by the fake news is equally nasty. Nearly 200 people were reportedly arrested in China in 2015 for spreading rumours about stock market instability and explosion in Tianjin. In Jakarta, BasukiTjahajaPurnama, popularly famed as Ahok, had misfortunes owing to rumours through a doctored video that targeted his race and religion in 2016.The Philippines was portrayed in the fake news as the ‘narco-state’ that reportedlyfavoured Rodrigo Duterte in his way to the office of the President.

Fake news has emerged as a new challenge for democracy in India as it spreads misinformation and disinformation, retards healthy debates in political system, manipulates popular perceptions, deviates priorities among the citizens, and promotes vested interests at the cost of democracy and rationality. Apart from political amassing of people under certain destructive right-wing cult, fake news in India has been damaging social texture and human relations in the society. Fake news that was disseminated in 2017, as this author has put in an article on The Wire Urdu, can be studied under the heads of fake news (a) borne out of propaganda by political parties themselves (b) targeted against Muslim, Dalits and liberal/progressive lot of people (c) by biased reporting of media houses, websites and portal (d) by government institutions, ministers, members of Parliament et.al. and(e) by inadvertent propagation.

In just last five months, loads of fake news emerged from persons holding constitutional offices in India. In addition to KiranBedi’s ‘innocent’ attempts apparently by the dint of some outburst of emotions, Prime Minister NarendraModi was also seen capitalizing on fake news amassing in case of DBT benefits, Ro-Ro Ferari service and others. Ministries of the central government also promoted the fake news depicting on their part what must be called as ‘irresponsible’ behaviour. Moreover, the media which is supposed to keep a vigilant eye on government’s omission was found behaving like a cheerleader of government and right-wing forces obsessed with more revenue earnings.Apart from the much-hyped nano-chip story by some journalists, we have evidence from The Republic, The Times of India, India Today, Times Now, and others. Right-wing online platform like Shanknaad, DainikBahrat and Postcard News bode ill to India’s democratic health in many dimensions. Thanks to vigilant platforms like Alt News, Boom Live, SM Hoax Slayer that are unraveling truth of fake news for quite some time.

Although, the fake news is detrimental at every level of society and politics but the way it is manoeuvring the energies of government institutions, political parties, members of Parliament, media outlets and citizens at large in the wrong direction, will be detrimental to Indian democracy in the long run. Representation and participation in a democracy, at the very first level, inheres in the free and fair electoral process. In India, free and fair electoral process is ensured by the Election Commission of India—the constitutional body considered as one of the four bulwarks of democracy in India, other being the Supreme Court, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India and the Union Public Service Commission. It was ensured in the Constituent Assembly that the Election Commission would be free from any institutional interference including that of the Executive.

Since independence, the Commission has been considerably successful in vitalizing the Indian polity, right from the very inception of India’s democratic journey with the first general elections to this date. Now, challenges of fake news are immensely detrimental to the free and fair election process, for these can’t be countered with the bodies like the Election Commission of India.

As of the various meanings of the ‘democracy’, representation and participationare inextricably linked to its concept and process. This is the foundation which much bigger corpus of theories and activism hinges upon. A general characteristic of world democracies is that they are manned, planned and executed by one or the other forms of Weberian bureaucracy having ‘legal’ and ‘rational’ elements. Therefore, modern democracies in the world have three peculiar artefacts namely, popular, legal and rational. Fake news as an instrument of popular mobilisation in India—very similar to the West, especially the USA—has challenged our very philosophical-constitutional foundations and the most sought spirit of scientific temperament.

Author is with the Department of Political Science, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh. He writes a weekly roundup on fake news for The Wire Urdu. Twitter: @NavedAshrafi

One Comment

  1. K SHESHU BABU says:

    Not just fake news, but the rapidity with which it is spreading is a cause of grave concern. There are effective mechanisms that are at work in spreading the mis- information. The mechanism must be exposed and people must be educated to counter false information