Facebook has declared that it has taken down hundreds of pages that it said were working to spread misleading content or spam ahead of elections in India set to begin April 11. The company said the pages removed included accounts traced to employees of the Pakistani military’s public-relations wing and others linked to the major National political parties in India.
India is the largest market for WhatsApp in terms of number of subscribers and the second largest (after the US) for Facebook as of beginning of 2019. The “intelligentsia” and its pseudo varieties relish on fighting Twitter wars. In fact, the social media space is overcrowded with seamless flow of ceremonial greetings of “Good Morning”, “Good Day” and the like accompanied by colourful images which are circulated in millions. Of late, particularly since the advent of far-right groups’ pervasive presence in social media across polities as diverse as the US and India, there is rampant and virulent weaponization of information in the media space, especially in social media.
Our mythology and history are replete with majestic examples of using fake news as a strategy for defeating the enemy. Even Krishna encouraged fake news as a weapon to overpower the great warrior, Drona – remember how at Krishna’s behest, the falsehood was fabricated and conveyed to Drona, “Ashwatthama is dead”. It was indeed Ashwatthama the elephant who was killed by Bhima, but to confuse and upset Drona, the news was conveyed as if Drona’s son, Ashwatthama was dead. When Yudhishthira who was to convey the news refused to utter the falsehood, he was provided the comfort of following up the sentence with a statement that it was the elephant by the name Ashwatthama who died and not Drona’s son. But Krishna ensured that instantly the beating of trumpets and blowing of conch shells all around were intensified so that the last sentence was drowned in the din and was not audible to Drona. Falsehood and deception were considered fair in war in medieval times. It seems our politicians deem it appropriate even in the modern-day elections too.
The reality is that social media platforms are today more powerful than the traditional media. The dissemination, access to information and shaping opinions is no longer the preserve of traditional media. In all these areas, social media platforms have managed to trump traditional media. No traditional media ever got the global reach that social media platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp, Google or Twitter command today.
Powerful new technology makes the manipulation and fabrication of content simple; anti-democratic governments, populist politicians and dishonest corporate entities can manipulate social media networks to dramatically amplify falsehoods.
The past few years have seen the rise of the far right in different geographies and with it the social media fight has come out in the open between the right and the left and often hijacked by the extreme or fringe elements on either side.
Social Media is in focus on any discussion on fake news. But peddling of half-truth and fake news disguised as truth thrives in the traditional media as well. Simply that the reach and ubiquitous visibility have pitchforked social media to the forefront in any discussion on fake news. Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter have finally woken up to the erosion in their credibility and widespread animosity to the passive role paid by the social media platform administrators in acquiescing the spread of falsehood and hate content.
Governments are realizing the new realty of the monstrous hold that social media has in aiding, abetting, acquiescing and tolerating deliberate attempts to spread untruth, half-truth and hate messages. In New Zealand and Australia there are serious discourses and Government moves are reportedly under way to bring in regulatory curbs on social media transactions. Humanity seems to be collectively throwing up the towel declaring the inability to self-regulate and to maintain the independence and objectivity of social media.
In the Indian context election time frenzy has taken over the social media space. Paid likes and foul-mouthed comments have been ruling the roost in the social media space for quite a while. India is facing information wars of an unprecedented nature and scale. Social Media is bombarded with fake news and divisive propaganda on a near-constant basis from a wide range of sources, from television news to global platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp.
Fake news and other invalid content are published for a variety of reasons. Some post it to smear an adversary, others enjoy “trolling” to watch others’ reactions, while some post “clickbait” to entice potential customers to view their ads. Regardless of the motivation, publishing or forwarding inaccurate news can have disastrous outcomes. Apart from damaging the reputation of another person or entity it can also lead to mass frenzy and criminal acts with grave implications for society. Over a dozen mass lynching took place in India in the past couple of years influenced by motivated spread of fake news to trigger social unrest.
Rumors and fake news spread faster than facts and truth. In a recent Pew Survey, 23 percent of respondents admitted to sharing fake news, while 14 percent said they shared an article knowing that it was indeed fake.
Playing upon the widespread skepticism around fake news circulating in social media and even print and visual media, a whole new industry has now emerged around fact verification and checking and neutralizing falsehood in the media space.
Even though social media is the villain of the piece, when it comes to fake news, print and visual media continue to play dominant role. Both in the newspaper and magazine space as well as in the TV news channels, innumerable pieces of manufactured truths do get circulated. Media space has become the arena for shouting matches, pushing “my truth” against “your truth”. In this confusion, “truth” has become one of the most subjective words, quite contrary to what it is supposed to be.
The phenomenon of fake news is so deeply embedded in the society that in 2016, Oxford Dictionary chose “post-truth” as the word of the year! Post truth society simply means a society where people at large are comfortable with receiving, spreading and acting on half-truth spread by stakeholders with vested interests.
While fake news and post-truth society are aided by technology advancements and innumerable tools and apps available in the digital world, the leveraging of falsehood and half-truths to augment social divisions is fanned by the political class ever seeking out ways to fish in troubled waters. With the reaction of the establishment on expected lines, we are bound to see a reassertion of state control on peer-to-peer information exchange.