Across the world, fake news has become the preferred way to subvert democracy and for authoritarian regimes to do as they please. From the capital cities to far-flung districts, an elaborate infrastructure has been developed to manufacture and spread fake news. Governments and their favoured corporations do this in tandem. Statements of heads of state carrying misleading information are printed on the front pages and flashed on prime-time television and when the misrepresentation is pointed out, none of these papers or channels summon the courage or even have the will to report that the prime minister or president has lied. In March 2017, Reporters without Borders released a report which rated countries across the world on the basis of the freedom of the press—India was ranked 136 among 180 countries. The performance of any government should be evaluated, along with everything else, on the grounds of whether the media is free during its tenure—and it isn’t just overt censorship that is a threat to press freedom but also the phenomenon of ‘godi media’—the lapdog media which functions as the PR department of the government. A UN committee warned in a statement on 4 March 2017 that across the world, people occupying constitutional positions are either declaring independent media organizations liars or calling them the opposition. Fake news is being used to impose a new kind of censorship. Critical thought is being suppressed.
In March 2017, the Democrats, who are in the opposition in America, proposed a bill which said that matters have reached such a stage that fake news is being fed to American citizens by the President himself, and his spokespersons. Governments, organisations and universities all over the world are discussing fake news. It is a big problem in the Philippines. The president of the country, Rodrigo Duterte, has been accused of encouraging fake news to keep his hold on power. A Filipino senator has filed a bill in the senate which seeks to impose heavy penalties on government officials and media persons who spread fake news, including imprisonment ranging from five to twenty years.
In November 2016, the University of Philippines launched an online channel, TVUP, to combat fake news. The executive director of the university issued a statement saying that he hoped that through this channel, the trash that was strewn in the online space could be countered so that the citizens of that country would have the opportunity to read genuine articles and access genuine news. The Sports Media and Cultural Committee of the British Parliament has also initiated an investigation of the effect of fake news on democracy.
On the other hand, politicians and the agencies of political parties who broadcast fake news have begun a new campaign. The president of the US, Donald Trump, has accused the news channel CNN of spreading fake news. He does that to whichever media criticizes his government. The president of Turkey, Recep Erdogan, sent many journalists to jail claiming that by doing so he was combating the spread of fake news. The prime minister of Cambodia branded the media as anarchist, and said the foreign media working in the country was a threat to peace and stability. The Supreme Court of Cambodia even dismantled the country’s principal opposition party. The current age of media and Power is rife with many such examples.
In India, some websites are battling fake news at their own levels. Between 2014 and 2017, many kinds and episodes of fake news were used to stoke tensions in society. The migration of families out of Kairana village in the Saharanpur district of UP in 2015-16 was given a communal colour by the BJP and its affiliates and debates continuously raged on TV that Kairana had been transformed into another Kashmir, with Hindus there being forced to flee ‘Muslim terror’ like the Kashmiri Pandits. This was a dangerous game in which prominent newspapers and news channels participated. The websites altnews.in, indiaspend.com, boomlive.com, www.hoax-slayer.net and—in Hindi—the website mediavigil.com have started to take up arms against such fake news. Pratik Sinha of altnews.in has managed to take the veils off fake news generated by numerous ministers, governments and websites. But this is happening on a very small scale. These valiant efforts make a very small dent on the fake news spread by the vast majority of the mainstream media.
It is imperative that we define fake news very clearly. The common man hasn’t yet understood the many ways in which it is disseminated. Mistakes are committed in journalism, and every mistake isn’t fake news. But the specially crafted fake news that emerges regularly these days originates elsewhere and is fed to journalists and media houses, who reach it to everyone. People occupying constitutional positions then legitimize it with their statements. There is also another way in which fake news is being generated: all governments are stopping information from reaching the media. No one possesses critical information. In its place there are false information, spurious issues and loaded statements supplied by the government which keep the wheels of misinformation and propaganda turning. Issues are raised which have no connection with reality or do not have as much of a connection or impact as they are made out to have.
Big political parties use fake news to destroy smaller ones. The latter, with their modest resources, are helpless, caught in the web of lies. The IT cells of powerful parties and their supporters are all engaged in disseminating false information. You could call it the equivalent of carpet bombing. Now, some political parties are constituting teams which catch fake news spread by other parties. For instance, during the elections in France, the National Front put together a Fake News Alert team. Parties in India will soon have to put together their own teams.
The volume and spate of fake news increases during election time. In 2016, when a referendum was conducted in Italy on measures that would have changed its constitution and given the prime minister greater powers, half the stories shared on Facebook were spurious and clearly designed to influence the plebiscite. Alarmed by the torrent of false stories coming from Russia—notorious for its fake news factories believed to be funded by the government—the European Union recently constituted a task force, the East StratCom Team, to counter them. This team was provided with a lot of money and resources during elections in the Netherlands and France so that they could thwart Russian propaganda. Russia has been accused of spending a lot of money on fake news in order to manipulate elections in several countries, including America.
In India, too, the quantity of fake news increases during elections. The Election Commission has no means to stem this flood. It doesn’t even have a firm definition of the phenomenon. What the Commission does acknowledge is paid news, though there isn’t yet a clear law to deal with that, either. The Commission creates Media Certification and Monitoring Committees at the state and district levels during every election to identify and catch paid news and issues notices to candidates asking
for clarifications. In one of its reports, released in 2013, the Commission said that 1,400 instances of paid news were observed in the legislative assembly elections held in seventeen states between 2010 and 2013. The general election of 2014 threw up 787 cases of paid news. Over 3,100 paid-news related notices were issued to candidates in the 2014 elections.
The Election Commission could not stop paid news but it did manage to create an agency which goes to work after each election is notified. However, nowadays all the games have usually begun even before the election dates are announced. There isn’t much for the Commission to do.
The Election Commission defines paid news as ‘any news or analysis appearing in any media (print & electronic) for a price in cash or kind as consideration’, and says that it ‘plays a very vitiating role in the context of free and fair elections…advertisements [are published] in the garb of news items, totally misleading the electors’. But the beast has evolved and grown way beyond this. It isn’t just about advertisements masquerading as news any longer. It is now the era of fake news, and no fig leaf is needed; lies are the new truth. Fake news happens on such a large scale that the government, if it really values democratic principles, must constitute a separate commission for it during elections which, like the Election Commission—a regulatory authority—should have constitutional rights and also be independent. But given the track record not just of the present government but of every government in the short history of our republic, we can be sure this won’t happen in a hurry, if it happens at all.