The ability of social media to fuel rumours has made it a clear and present danger. The spate of lynching incidents call for immediate action
In March 2014, students and teachers of Ukraine’s Kyiv-Mohyla School of Journalism along with KMA Digital Future of Journalism project came together with a unique initiative: They launched a website called StopFake.Org and called it a fact-checking site. “Journalists, editors, IT specialists, translators, all those who cared about the future of Ukraine during this dangerous time of the annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine joined the project,” reads a note on the said website. Soon, this portal grew into an influential information hub that went on to examine the impacts of propaganda not only in Ukraine but other countries and regions as well, including those from the European Union and the erstwhile Soviet Union. A non-Government initiative with its primary goal “to verify information, raise media literacy in Ukraine and establish a clear red line between journalism and propaganda,” StopFake could well serve as a model for India and other countries that are confronted with an eerie enemy called fake news.
For a world enamored with the many advantages of social media, fake news is one monster that countries need to learn to deal with; and looks like for quite a while. It may be pertinent to explore the reasons that could have steered this offshoot of modern technology, prompting Collins dictionary to pronounce fake news as the word of the year in 2017. Reasons could range from social, cultural and psychological. By nature, human beings are curious — their need to know, learn and explore is what makes them distinct from animals, or even robots. For ages, this need has been met through media and popular sources like newspapers, radio, television and even films and other personalised forms of communication. The outlet of information, its packaging, and dissemination were all controlled. The consumption of information too was controlled. Journalism was a respected and trusted profession.
The advent of the Internet and the subsequent loosening of this grip on information by social media led to an unprecedented democratisation of information — mass communication was no longer the sole preserve of traditional news organisations. Anyone and everyone could communicate with many, share perspectives, information or even news. Individuals were no longer passive consumers of news but gained the power to participate and frame the contours of public discourse. For Government, corporate, political and social actors, social media platforms became powerful tools for effective, expeditious and ceaseless communication. Erstwhile human-led communication gave way to a technology-mediated environment with little or no barriers. Access to technology became the sole enabler for mass communication. The erstwhile process-led and organised compilation of content and its use in the construction of narratives gave way to sporadic, instantaneous and individualised manufacturing of facts.
It was this miniaturisation of the mass communication framework that became its nemesis. Deviants, skeptics, and criminals embraced this technology and abused its unhindered access to indulge in all kinds of bizarre acts, including propagating fake news. Soon, fake news on social media became a tool for settling personal, corporate and political scores. Vested interests began using it to foment communal and social hatred and disharmony. For some, it also became a tool for spearheading vicious campaigns. For those with limited or no abilities to filter information, and use it judiciously, fake news turned poisonous. Not too long ago, there surfaced a spate of reports of lynchings and killings from across the country, courtesy fake news. Just when we had hoped that these incidents were aberrations, incidents from Tripura and Maharashtra this past week jolted us again.
An announcer, Sukanta Chakraborty, hired in south Tripura to dispel rumors on child-lifters himself became a victim of this WhatsApp menace and was lynched by a mob. last Sunday, in Dhule, Maharashtra, five persons were lynched by a furious mob who suspected the victims to be child lifters — again their fear was triggered by fake news on WhatsApp. What’s startling is that such cases are increasingly being reported from rural and remote areas where people enjoy a strong intra-community bonding and any perceived threat to the community is dealt with stiff resistance, including the use of violence. Unfortunately, what’s read or heard on WhatsApp becomes a gospel truth while facts, human discretion and reason suffer a severe blow. It’s an alarming sign of how unhindered access to technology can cause severe disruptions in society.
While sustained push by Government and technology companies to spread digital equity will further enhance access to technology through handheld devices, we shall require many initiatives like StopFake to ensure the monster doesn’t grow into a dinosaur of disruption and chaos. Recently, Rajasthan Police Twitter handle ran a campaign on fake news, earning applause. However, a few solo efforts may not go too far. It will require a sustained, multi-party, multi-pronged collaboration to wage a war against fake news. As a hashtag used frequently by IPS Association Twitter handle @IPS_Association aptly sums it up: We shall need to #KillFakeNews.
(The writer is a strategic communications professional)