Recently Mohammad Zubair, co-founder of fact-checking website Altnews was arrested in the name of ‘hurting religious sentiments.’ This was based on a supposed complaint on a post by Zubair in 2018. The twitter account which called for action was later deleted. The point is whether the specific post was a problem, or the role being played by altnews in fact checking and fake news busting a problem for the Government?
Propaganda is often used by right wing ideology for widening the base of followers to a particular way of thinking. The role of lie, constant repetition builds long term perceptions and builds a populace conducive to right wing ideology. Hitler even in the days when no internet or social media existed understood its role. He believed that “All propaganda must be confined to a few bare necessities and then must be expressed in a few stereotyped formulas . . . Only constant repetition will finally succeed in imprinting an idea upon the memory of a crowd.” He also pointed that “Through clever and constant application of propaganda, people can be made to see paradise as hell, and the other way round, to consider the most wretched sort of life as paradise.” Hence “In political matters feeling often decides more correctly than reason.” On whom the propaganda to be addressed, he points “To the scientifically trained intelligentsia or the less educated masses? It must be addressed always and exclusively to the masses.”
The Hindutva fake news ecosystem which has emerged broadly follows this pattern. It aims to build stereo types, repeat to imprint on people’s minds, appeal to emotion than to reason and reach out to large masses. The perceptions it aims to build among the masses are that a) Hindus are a victim of aggression by religious minorities; b) the country is currently under safe hands under the modern-day Hindu king; c) parties other than the BJP do not love the country and engage in anti-national activities; d) all those who oppose Hindutva are anti-Hindus, pro-Muslim etc. The various events are factually or pictorially manipulated, repeated in a manner that it builds stereotypes on what it means to a ‘Muslim,’ ‘Opposition leader,’ ‘Activist’ or an ‘Intellectual’ and how the responsibility of protecting the country needs to be in the hands of ‘Sanghis’ and the ‘Bhakt’ followers.
Fact checking websites such as Alt-news use technological tools to check facts, identify fake news, bust lie, and identify the truth. The process of fact checking may not limit to the ones propagated by only right-wing only but also covers others including other parties. It uses tools such as google reverse image search, search filters, verifying statements attributed to public figures. It may bust false claims such as fake news around Hindus being attacked by Muslims, a criminal act attributed to Muslims, news aimed at particularly propagating the prime minister as larger than life figure, portraying opposition parties as anti-Hindu (particularly Rahul Gandhi and Nehru), false historical claims, maligning mainstream media such as NDTV, targeting of individuals such Rana Ayyub – Ravish Kumar etc.
Fact checking websites such as Altnews performs three kinds of roles that of cracking false claims, capturing truth and countering propaganda. Hence these are seen as problematic in the right-wing propaganda ecology.
Cracks false claims
Firstly, altnews cracks false claims. Such false claims are the ones propagated by right wing ecosystem could be related to villainising a particular identity, demonising a belief system or individuals belonging to a different or opposing ideologies. The book ‘India Misinformed: The true story’ captures such instances. Such examples include a train accident in Amritsar being attributed to a Muslim driver or spreading a news that Muslims are responsible for 95% of rapes in India or a Rate card having been issued for ‘love jihad’ to lure non-Muslim women or Hindu families being attacked. Fact checking revealed that each of the news turned out to be false.
Secondly, it captures the truth. In the above examples, it was found that the identity of the driver to whom accident was attributed was not a Muslim but a Hindu. Rapes which were largely attributed to Minorities turned out to be fake as they are never captured on religious lines by National Crime Research Bureau (NCRB). Rate card around ‘love jihad’ turned out to be a fake image. Image of attack on Hindus turned out to be an old image from Bangladesh. Similarly, celebrations in cricket victory in Pakistan were attributed to Indian Muslims.
Thirdly, it counters propaganda. Apart from villainising minorities, one area is to present a larger-than-life figure of the prime minister. Such examples include, quoting global leaders showering praise on the prime minister, the prime minister working for 18-20 hours a day, being conferred with UNESCO award as the best Prime Minister or being the centre of attention of World leaders in the Global summits. Fact checks revealed that none of those quotes attributed to global leaders were true. The image depicting the prime minister as centre of attention of global leaders was a photoshopped image. The bureaucrat to whom originally 18–20-hour work by the prime minister was attributed did not exist.
The above activities such as cracking false claims, capturing truth and countering propaganda is seen as coming in the way of right-wing propaganda. Hence it is not surprising the Mohammad Zubair is arrested. The problem is not with the quote per se, but its overall role in countering propaganda.
T Navin is an independent writer