‘Fake News’ is turning India into ‘lynchocracy’


There is spate of lynching incidents reported from different parts of India. Many of them are attributed to fake news that is discovered much after the damage is done.

The Supreme Court of India has become agog to such frightening reality and had ordered the Centre and the States government to take immediate steps to stop the dissemination of misinformation causing mortal harms to the individuals.

This phenomenon is reaching alarming levels forcing the government to direct the social media to control its fake content. It’s even contemplating to make legislation to arrest this growing trend.

The phenomenon of fake news which is growing at alarming rate is caught in the cesspool of blame game. The court is asking the government, the government is asking the social media and the social media is putting the onus on the public saying they have to ultimately to be held responsible for the fake news.

In this blame game, the phenomenon of fake news is having a field day. The civil society is a spectator to the lynch mobs that is on prowl at the drop of the fake news to take innocent lives.  It appears the phenomenon of fake news has acquired persuasive power with a tendency to whip up mob frenzy.

As a result Indian democracy is being converted into mobocracy and lynchocracy. This is a serious issue and has to be dealt with all the seriousness it deserves.

The very concept of fake news is the intentional spreading of misinformation. There are many sources of fake news. This can be individuals, lobbies, groups and even governments.  Invariable, all have their own axe to grind. Their aim is to whip up emotions and public hysteria and reap the benefits of the cascading effects of fake news for their selfish ends.

Fake news can be extremely dangerous if one cynical believe it to be as truth. The mother of all ‘fake news’ was the 2003 Iraq War, when the fake news was circulated that the then Iraqi dictator possessed weapons of mass destruction.

Never in recent memory such chicanery of fake news was has created so much havoc in the world.  This misinformation lured the Bush administration to go to war with Iraq. And we all know what happened after that.

In hindsight, if the then US administration had bothered to check the reliability of such information and may not have blindly become susceptible to such fake news, perhaps world would have been a better place to live, thousands of lives may have been lost and peace may have prevailed in that region.

Here, one wonders what would have been the trajectory of events, if social media, which are now considered to be the biggest carriers of fake news, was present at point of time. Could it have exacerbated that fake news or it had deflated the same.

Well that is past and is history and behind us.  Let’s talk about the pros and cons of the Supreme Court’s order to the government to check the phenomena of fake news. The Apex Court has ordered the government to find ways and means to control this alarming trend.

The government has two options. One, to make legislation with punitive action to punish the perpetrators of the fake news and the second is to strengthen its vigilance over social media and regulate them.

However, the fear is any legislation made the government to control “fake news” could prove to be counterproductive. It may be used to target its critics and penalties in such case can stifle legitimate social discourse and divergent opinions.

Many a time the governments itself are the chief source of fake news. In such case governments cannot be entrusted with the responsibility to control the fake news.

Now it’s an accepted fact that the social media platforms are the biggest source of ‘fake news.’  This is because the online news industry is facing stiff competition from the print and broadcast media and the digital media revenues are dwindling at an alarming pace. Social Medias unable to shore up its revenue are dishing out fake news to attract more page views. This is a survival tactics of the online news industry.

They have adopted a certain kind of approach towards journalism that thrives on flashy ‘click-bait’ stories aimed at shoring up advertisements. It is creating contents that can go viral and can create maximum amount of page views, generating handsome revenue.  As a result, the amount of “fake news” being generated through the social media platforms is increasing alarming.

Thanks to the US President Donald Trump who has blown the lid over the fake news industry.  This problem has acquired a global dimension. Countries are waking up to this reality of fake news and the damages being done as a result of it. Each country in their own way are grappling with the menace of fake news but none have yet found any tangible solution to address this issue.

Since a great deal of “fake news” is disseminated on social media platforms, it’s the social media outlets that have the responsibility to control the intentional misinformation.

The focus should be more at the tech platforms like Google, Apple and Facebook, from where a great deal of information is generated. These tech platforms have the technical capacity to identify and delete inappropriate contents. They can do this also by closing bogus accounts, blocking obvious offensive content and expanding third-party fact-checking.

People‘s expectation from these tech companies is high because its they that control smart-phone operating systems. It would be nice if the tech company expand their commitment to creating built-in opportunities for affirmative creation of civically useful news.

Further, there is need to educate people the use of social media and how to consume news and to report abuse, or story that is fake or disputed. The social media platform needs to educate users to identify disinformation and to block them making use of their filters. However, the ultimate defence against fake news is to develop critical thinking among the people who have to be vigilant and proactive to control fake news.

Lastly, all stakeholders have to bear a personal responsibility for the dissemination of truthful information, including governments, the traditional press, the new media platforms, and the citizens at large.

The issue of fake news has created another problem and that is restoring public trust in the media. This is a huge issue that has cropped up since the advent of social media. As such, building public trust and living up to the expectation that news is civically useful, has become a big challenge.

In order to rebuild public trust, there is need to re-evaluate the way the  content strategies is being made, how a story is built, how the news is formulated and   formatted, and what are the mechanism to distribute the news.

So, instead of sensationalism and creating fake news content the focus should be on the generation of content that attracts serious readers. The news outlets should take a fresh look at what they should have that’s valuable to its readers. For this there is a need to have better understanding of the targeted audience.

The best possible way to win over public trust is to be relevant in the new era of information dissemination. A really vigorous re-evaluation of the thinking that goes into content development and news production is the only possible way to go forward to tackle the problem of fake news.

As far as India is concerned, two websites; AltNews.in and SMHoaxSlayer are doing a huge service to fight the menace of fake news.  However, the problem is monumental and all the stakeholders should generate greater amount of resolve to address the issue of fake news.

Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at syedalimujtaba@yahoo.com


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