A panel of journalists, social activists and politicians here attributed the phenomenon of fake news in the country to the rise of social media and said the wide circulation of such news makes them seem increasingly trustworthy to people.
“The use of internet has increased enormously and it is reaching the farthest corners of the country. But it is reaching many people who take the words on a newspaper as gospel truth and these people are now exposed to social media like Facebook and Whatsapp where there is absolutely no tool to verify the authenticity of the information they get,” Pratik Sinha, co-founder of Alt News, an Indian fact checking website, launched to combat fake news phenomenon, said at the Tata Steel Kolkata Literary Meet here.
“That’s why people are falling prey to fake news to the extent that they tend to act on it. As a result incidents like lynching on the basis of a fake news is taking place. While the fake news is not tough to detect, it is often tough to reach out to the people who are circulating it within a personalised Whatsapp group that has end to end encryption,” he pointed out.
Sinha claimed several prominent ministers often retweet or quote from certain websites that promote fake news for financial gains and such acts make those news seem far more believable in the eyes of the common people.
Echoing Sinha, Amnesty International India’s Executive Director Aakar Patel said the emergence of non-traditional media has made it possible for someone to propagate an information as authentic news, at least temporarily.
“I think what’s new is we never had non-traditional media with a loud voice. But today the democratisation of the media space, which is a fine thing in many ways, has also led to the ability of an individual or a group to broadcast a material and make it look true at least temporarily. That is the most important bit,” Patel said.
He said while the mainstream media moves on from one story to the other with time, the people with an intention to control the narratives to insert a lie or an exaggeration in people’s mind are able to do so by amplifying the circulation of fake news in social media.
Accepting that fake news is alarmingly on the rise, Trinamool Congress MLA Mahua Moitra claimed there has been a pushback against the phenomenon since the expose of various fake news videos, including a regional film clipping that was circulated as a video of communal violence in West Bengal’s Basirhat.
“There has been a pushback against fake news in the last four months in Bengal. Earlier it was extremely difficult for us, as people thought everything that came their way as news was true, but now they have come to understand fake news. Forwarding Whatsapp messages is a mob mentality of rural people. They hardly think before forwarding the messages,” she said.
Moitra also argued for penal provision for circulating a fake news on communal lines. She said such cases should lead to a higher degree of punishment to stop similar practices. Senior Indian journalist and Member of Parliament Swapan Dasgupta, however, claimed fake news was a “term created by the mainstream media” to hide their inabilities to report on certain issues.
“Do not confuse rumours, misrepresentations, lies and propaganda as they are very different things. I think there is a scare among the mainstream media about their own increasing irrelevance because of social media. Hence, the whole bogey of fake news has been brought up. This is a media invention to protect itself,” he said.
Answering a question about mainstream media shying away from covering certain issues, Dasgupta said, “the mainstream media does exercise a certain amount of censorship… which results in certain very inconvenient stories either not being covered or being brushed under the carpet”.