Fake News’ has been named Word(s) of the Year 2017 by Collins Dictionary. The dictionary said its use has surged 365% in the year since US President Donald Trump got elected.
Trump might not have made it to the cover of Time Magazine as Person of the Year, but at least he can console himself that he helped make ‘fake news’ hyuuuuge. It’s a term he claims to have invented. “The media is really, the word, one of the greatest of all terms I’ve come up with, is ‘fake’. I guess other people have used it perhaps over the years but I’ve never noticed it. And it’s a shame.”
What’s the real shame is that once again Indians are being robbed of their rightful achievements by the white man. When it comes to fake news, we should be the market leaders, not the Donalds-come-lately. This is our shuddh desi Made in India success story. We are its proud producers, distributors and consumers.
Long before Trump came around, our politicians alerted us to ‘news traders’ and ‘presstitutes’. We have been well trained to distrust the media whenever it says anything that does not fit our ideological blinkers and there is always a WhatsApp forward to fit our particular biases. No wonder India is WhatsApp’s largest market with 200 million active users, a shadow media empire that reaches us more efficiently than the evening news. As a bonus, it’s encrypted and unaccountable.
In the last year, we have seen fake news about cricket, Arundhati Roy, the GPS chip in the ₹2,000 note, Muslims, and even the Rajkot bus stand. Need a quick booster shot of national pride? How about a fake quote of WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange praising the prime minister?
Need to help foment a riot? Grab a still from a Bhojpuri film showing a goon stripping a woman and pass it off as a breaking image from Ground Zero of communal violence in Basirhat in Bengal. Call it news the paid media suppresses.
Need to let loose a lynch mob? Find some pictures of meat and bones of a slaughtered cow and pin the blame on a Muslim ironsmith in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh. Or start a rumour about a gang of men abducting children in Jharkhand. Seven men died as a result of the mob that gathered in response, a grisly marker of its success as mischief-monger.
Need to score some political points? How about a ‘BBC’ survey that names Congress the ‘fourth most corrupt party in the world’? That list also included parties that have not existed since World War II, such as the Nazi Party in Germany and the National Fascist Party in Italy. But that proved no deterrent to those forwarding it. “The BBC might not have done it,” shrugged an acquaintance who shared it, “but that did not mean it was not true.”
Perhaps more alarming than the epidemic of fake news is how much at ease we are with it, as long as it confirms our ideological biases. Thus, to think we can debunk fake news simply with facts is naive.
Secret of its Success
The SMHoaxSlayers and AltNews of the world are doing valiant work. But they are puny Davids, fighting-—pardon the mixed mythology—a Hydra-headed Goliath. Fake news succeeds not because we are gullible, or too busy to fact-check, but because we do not want facts to get in the way of our confirmation bias.
Facebook has realised this. It will no longer red-flag fake news as ‘Disputed’ because that’s making people more inclined to click on it. “Academic research on correcting misinformation has shown that putting a strong image, like a red flag, next to an article may actually entrench deeply held beliefs—the opposite effect to what we intended,” Facebook product manager Tessa Lyons writes in a blog post.
Even as we wring our hands about Facebook turning into Fakebook, fake news has quietly made the leap into the mainstream. When ministers and party spokespersons share it and refer to it, they give it a sheen of quasi-respectability. Some might indeed share it in good faith, for who among us has not fallen for a hoax? What is more telling is what we do when the hoax is called out.
Current defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman once retweeted a fake quote about musician AR Rahman supporting a ban on cattle slaughter. Later, she untweeted it and apologised. Some quietly delete fake news they have shared, but without apology or acknowledgement. Others do nothing. The fake news remained undisturbed on their timeline because they understand the real value of fake news lies in changing the contours of the discussion.
Those who manufacture fake news get something our media outlets don’t. ‘Satyameve Jayate’ (Truth alone triumphs) might be our national motto, but too many of us are not looking for the truth anymore. We are just looking for something that sounds true enough to forward.