“We have begun to live in a world, where we eat content, drink content and breathe content, without giving a single thought to its composition and what kind of impact it has upon our lives … Unmoderated content consumption is as dangerous as the consumption of sewage water.”
– Abhijit Naskar, The Constitution of The United Peoples of Earth
As one of the leading developing economies, with a huge population that falls under the category of young adults, India has 451 million monthly active internet users (Internet and Mobile Association of India, 2019). Additionally, India also has over 230 million Whatsapp users, which makes them susceptible to the menace of cyber fake news; many users have spoken about receiving fake news, especially during the time of election campaigning(1). Social media platforms by virtue of providing a convenient veil of anonymity become convenient mediums of spreading fake news.
As per research conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, fake news has a higher penetration than facts-based verified news. According to the study, falsehoods were 70% more likely to be retweeted on Twitter than truth. True news stories took longer (on average six times) to reach 1500 people than falsehood based on 126,000 news stories between 2006 and 2017, which were cumulatively tweeted over 4.5 million times by about 3 million people, verified by six independent fact-checking organizations as either true or false (Vosoughi, Roy & Aral, 2018); needless to say the adverse effect of such phenomena spread like a wildfire in a country like India.
Since fake news is primarily aimed at exploiting the sensitive fault-lines between various social groups, its ramifications can be catastrophic in India, which is home to all six major world religions, thousands of ethnic and linguistic groups, as well as hundreds of castes and sects. Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Director at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, opines that in a diverse complex society like India, the issue of fake news assumes different proportions altogether and hence need to be looked at from a fresh perspective(2). The challenges of identity theft, online child pornography and fake news are established crimes in the cyber world in the West. In India, cybercrime cases are on the rise. As per the recent statistical data released by the National Crime Records Bureau, cybercrimes in India almost doubled in 2017(3). Given the scenario, here, newer areas of both online and offline crimes, induced by the spread of fake news, can kick in.
On May 24, 2018, Kalu Ram Bachanram, a 26-yrs-old resident of Rajasthan, was lynched by a mob including women and minors in the Chamarajpet area of Bengaluru (Bangalore) using cricket bats and iron rods. The accused mob not only lynched him but also shared a video of the act on a Facebook page believing him to be a child-lifter, based upon false messages circulated to them.
On June 8, 2018, two young men Nilotpal Das and Abhijeet Nath, working in the Bollywood music industry, got lynched by a frenzied mob of 200 people over fake news shared by a history-sheeter, Alfajoz Timung, due to personal vengeance.
On July 1, 2018, all mainstream media were covering news of five people getting lynched by a furious mob in Maharashtra on suspicions of them being part of a child-lifters’ gang. The murderous mob hailed from the village, where the news of fake child-lifters went viral. This influenced the mob to thrash the said people to death.
In every case, the commonality is that the lynching was triggered by fake news circulated on social media. In the years 2017 and 2018, child-lifting rumours-induced mob lynching has claimed 33(4) lives in a number of the 69 reported incidents, and at least 99 people were injured therein. In the first week of July 2018, there have been nine cases of mob violence and five deaths over child lifting rumours. Hence fake news, being instrumental in transforming a group of people into a frenzied mob that behaves worst than animals, can unambiguously be likened to metastasizing cancer.
To understand the deeper impact of misinformation propagated through fake news in our society, we need to understand the use of social media from a political perspective. Social media has arisen as a powerful medium for political engagement and expression for masses. Resultantly, state actors leverage this platform to spread narratives and misleading information regarding crucial issues, especially at decisive occasions such as elections.
Most of the political parties run their campaigns – both official and non-official – through social media. These campaigns can easily trespass the boundaries of morality, possibly leading to sharing of doctored content and fake news. Since about half-a-billion Indian voters have access to the internet, there is a high probability that fake news has an impact on the elections.
For example, in the recent years, a photograph of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, along with a foreigner woman, has been circulating on the social media with a narrative that the flamboyant PM allowed the latter to kiss him. However, the fact is that the woman in the photo was actually Nayantara Sahgal – niece of Jawaharlal Nehru. Likewise, an old photo of Kiran Bedi has been resurfacing on the internet to propagate a story that current PM Narendra Modi is a vindictive person, while former PM Indira Gandhi was a generous person that she invited Bedi despite the fact that the latter towed away from the former’s car.
The above-mentioned fake news incidences are a perfect example of creating a narrative with the intention of political gain using misinformation.
It is worth contemplating how many people change their opinion based on misinformation and propaganda? Sadly, no such detailed study has been conducted in India, but the 2016 U.S. election could be a reference point wherein Facebook disclosed that Russia-based agents posted about 80,000 politically-oriented posts on the social networking site, in an effort to influence the U.S. politics, and that these posts reached to about 126 million Americans(5). Although there is no way to figure out the exact impact of fake news on opinion of voters, but a study at the Ohio University showed that, “Among those who believed none of the three fake news stories, 89 per cent cast ballots for Hillary Clinton in 2016; among those who believed one fake news item, this level of electoral support fell to 61 per cent; but among those who had voted for Obama in 2012 and believed two or all three of these false assertions, only 17 per cent voted for Clinton.”(6)
However, another interesting conclusion on the impact of fake news in electoral outcome is proposed by Sayan Banerjee – a U.K.-based Indian researcher – that fake news does not change the political opinions of individuals, but rather reinforces their preconceived notions and brings out their worst instincts(7). Both situations, where misinformation and propaganda, either manipulate people’s political opinions or validate their existing beliefs should be major concerns for a democratic nation where public opinion shapes the future of the nation.
Fake news, information and campaigns over social media have been used to defame organizations as well as to manipulate markets; the famous example is ‘Arctic Ready hoax’ (8) targeting Shell company. ‘Cadbury HIV hoax’ (9) is also not very old news. So, the impact of misinformation is not only limited to the manipulation of political opinion but also encompasses the business world.
Recently, this writer interviewed Pratik Sinha, the founder of Alt News – an Indian fact-checking website, who offered great insight on the fake news phenomena: “There are financial incentives for the creation of content based on the number of viewers that promote the creation of click-bait, provocative videos and content. And when we have an excess of information, how is one to figure out the authenticity of the information? To deal with such a situation, we need proper training through educational curricula.”
The abundance of information, in the present, is only going to increase in the future since content marketing has become a crucial aspect for all kinds of businesses. So, there is an urgent need to educate people and create tools to deal with the spread of (mis)information. While there are several applications (apps) to consume information, those that deal exclusively with easy fact-checking of fake news are few – for example, Alt news app and Logically. Also, in the wake of limited fake news checking options, and lack of widespread awareness about the same, the number of users of such apps remains questionable.
Interestingly, Artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithms, which have been actively deployed in curbing spam e-mails, are emerging as useful solutions with regards cross-checking of content. ‘Grover’, a new-generation AI algorithm, promises 92% efficiency in detecting nonhuman content(10) by analyzing and distinguishing legit from fake information; it makes use of a database of specific accounts, internet protocol addresses or sources, which have already been marked for spreading misinformation.
Even though AI seems to be a promising remedy, it has certain limitations(11). Due to lack of understanding of the nuances of human writings, contexts and shades of tone, it may be challenging for AI to decipher such content, but the very obvious and large number of misinformation can be identified(12). AI is not an absolute answer to the complex issue of fake news, for the latter’s consumers and targets act as links in a chain within the entire system and thus contribute to spreading it further.
However, sole reliance on technology-based solution(s) for dealing with fake news is inadequate. Human judgment based on wisdom is essential for curbing the rapid dissemination of misinformation. When consumers make informed decisions by verifying the credibility of the source or the credentials of the individual sending (fake) videos/content before sharing, the continuum of fake news dispersal gets broken. Thus, spreading awareness among people about the propagandist nature and desolating consequences of fake news is indispensable.
Also, a database or collection of fact-checking content, news, and information from credible sources, individuals or organizations can be maintained for content cross-checking. It can highlight posts, article, and mainstream news containing falsified or fake information. Currently, in India, a handful of fact-check websites exist viz. Fact Crescendo, Vishwa News, Altnews, SMHoaxSlayer, Factly, Facthunt, and Boom. Recently, Facebook-acquired WhatsApp launched a service named ‘Checkpoint Tipline’(13) to check misinformation at the time of the general elections (in April 2019) to curb the circulation of fake news. A Whatsapp user can submit information received through any social media platform to Tipline on Whatsapp number (+91-9643-000-888) and get responses that include true, false, misleading, disputed or out of scope options. Users also get notified about any other related information that is available.
According to Sinha, we need not only a means to prevent the spread of false information, but also a way to repair the damage by a method to reach out to those users of social media, who have been exposed to fake news. Also, social media giants need to put a check on those anonymous accounts, which indulge in the behaviour of spreading misinformation religiously. He further articulates, “This is a huge issue that we are facing. We are dealing with the multi-headed monster essentially. In a country like India, we don’t see much willingness of the government to deal with this issue; for example, we can easily reach a large audience through radio to bring a systematic change.”
To that effect, a comprehensive legal and policy framework could be a useful measure to prevent fake news’ creation and propagation. In this regard, the following are some points where the government can formulate guidelines and enact laws:
1] Criminalizing or setting-up punitive measures for curbing the creation or propagation of rumours that undermine social order and harmony;
2] Regulating media houses through legal action(s), in case their platforms are spreading false/doctored information as ‘news’. Following steps can be undertaken in this respect:
- Establishing guidelines that allow to solely republish news article and news links from registered news media (RNI);
- Media houses can form an in-house unit to refute rumours/falsified information on their platform;
- Bringing media houses under the ambit of legal action in case their platform is found to be spreading false information as ‘news’;
3] Introducing a bill to put restrictions on all political parties and leaders from sharing false information (including the ruling party); and
4] Issuing a multimedia fact-checking page via the Election Commission of India that includes “fact-check articles” debunking information. This should be circulated strategically ahead of elections for bringing about widespread awareness among the Indian masses.
5] An expert group of journalists and scholars to come up with possible solutions ahead and also potential threats and create awareness among people.
However, care must be taken that the regulation of fake news shouldn’t stifle the freedom of expression. In conclusion, dealing with the fake news problem needs a collective effort by the people, government bodies, social media giants and technology solution companies.
- 1 in 2 Indians receiving fake news via Facebook, WhatsApp, The Economic Times, Apr 09, 2019 available at
- “India’s Disinformation War More Complex Than in West: Oxford Prof”. The Quint. June 10, 2018, available at https://www.thequint.com/news/india/media-coverage-disinformation-in-india-interview-rasmus-nielsen.
- Vishwakarma, N. (2019). Cybercrime cases in India almost doubled in 2017: NCRB statistics. [online] MediaNama. Available at: https://www.medianama.com/2019/10/223-cybercrime-ncrb-2017/ [Accessed 30 Nov. 2019].
- Alison Saldanha, Pranav Rajput & Jay Hazare, “Child-Lifting Rumours: 33 Killed in 69 Mob Attack since Jan 2017. Before That Only Attack in 2010”, IndiaSpend, July 09, 2018, available at https://www.indiaspend.com/child-lifting-rumours-33-killed-in-69-mob-attacks-since-jan-2017-before-that-only-1-attack-in-2012-2012/
- Olivia solon and Sabrina Siddiqui, “Russia-backed Facebook posts’ reached 126m Americans’ during US election”, The Guardian, Oct 31, 2017, available at https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/oct/30/facebook-russia-fake-accounts-126-million.
- R. Gunther, P. A. Beck, and E. C. Nisbet, “Fake News did Have a Significant Impact On The Vote in the 2016 Election”, March 26 , 2017, available at https://cpb-us-w2.wpmucdn.com/u.osu.edu/dist/d/12059/files/2015/03/Fake-News-Piece-for-The-Conversation-with-methodological-appendix-11d0ni9.pdf.
- “Study to decode how WhatsApp fake news is influencing Indian voters”, PTI, The Economic Times, May 12, 2019, available at https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/elections/lok-sabha/india/study-to-decode-how-whatsapp-fake-news-is-influencing-indian-voters/articleshow/69291431.cms?from=mdr.
- Kashmir Hill, ”Shell Oil’s Social Media Nightmare continues, Thanks To Skilled Pranksters Behind@ShellisPrepared”, Forbes, July 18, 2012, available at https://www.forbes.com/sites/kashmirhill/2012/07/18/shell-oils-social-media-nightmare-continues-thanks-to-skilled-pranksters/#43a8b94a3ec4.
- Krutika Kale, “Cadbury Chocolates Contaminated With HIV?: We Tell You Why It’s Fake”, Boom, Aug 07, 2019, available at https://www.boomlive.in/cadbury-chocolates-contaminated-with-hiv-we-tell-you-why-its-fake/.
- Indre Deksnyte, “How AI Can Create And Detect Fake News”, Forbes, Sep 12, 2009, available at https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescommunicationscouncil/2019/09/12/how-ai-can-create-and-detect-fake-news/#61bf9e98e84b.
- James Vincent, “Why AI isn’t going to solve Facebook’s fake news problem”, The Verge, April 05, 2018, available at https://www.theverge.com/2018/4/5/17202886/facebook-fake-news-moderation-ai-challenges.
- Shelly Brown, “AI now can spot fake news generated by AI” msn news, july 31, 2019 available at https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/technology/ai-now-can-spot-fake-news-generated-by-ai/ar-AAF8Gxl.
Sutrishna Ghosh, “What is Tipline on WhatsApp? Facebook company launches service to check facts in election season”, YOURSTORY, Apr 02, 2019, available at https://yourstory.com/2019/04/whatsapp-launches-tipline-curb-fake-news-india-elections-gbxoase8cg.