Fake News and Its Implications

Published : May 01, 2018 07:22 am | By: M D Sridharan

In the recent times fake news invades across media, be it television, print and online. Fake stories are spreading significantly more quickly and broadly than true stories in all categories of information, but it were more pronounced for false political news. It is time that fake news menace is curbed and some regulations should be brought in dissemination of news.

In the recent times there has been a spate of fake news that continues to invade across media be  it television, print and online. Especially with the advent of social media the fake news menace is spreading fast. Indeed we have reached a flash point that has made everyone to consciously try to answer the question: which is more powerful the truth or the fake ones?

Recently a study by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers revealed that the fake news stories spread much more quickly and widely on Twitter than truthful ones.  The researchers examined about 126,000 stories shared by some 3 million people on Twitter from 2006 to 2017 and found that false news is 70% more likely to be re-tweeted by people than true news. The researchers also found out that the imbalance is driven more by people than automated “bot” accounts.

Fake stories are spreading significantly more quickly and broadly than true stories in all categories of information, but it were more pronounced for false political news. While, international regulators are trying their best to prevent the spread of false content, especially on the social media, there are organised sects of professionals engaged in spreading the false stories in television, print and online media.


The Fake News Menace

 

The fake news or distorted information has really become a menace across the globe. Especially in the digital era, it has become increasingly difficult to curb the malice as it has become a key weapon in the online media, especially for the political parties. Undoubtedly fake news not only triggers spiralling reactions,­ but also affects the political parties. When a leader becomes the victim of negative campaigns, as a consequence they resort to similar campaigns on their opponents and the act continues.

Reactions like: “Is it true”?  or “There is every possibility it could have happened”, have become quite common when dealing with negative statements.  An element of doubt is always associated with a piece of information that appears in a social media, as many ponder over whether it is factual or not.

It always raises suspicion when a public figure posts in the public realm a statement about another public figure. Well it could be a  post laced with sarcasm or an innuendo, but it creates ripples without fail and provides the fodder for a possible hot debate on a TV channel.  In many cases, such posts also invite legal action.  

News without authentication is dangerous for the society as a whole.  All said and done, today the art of making a  fake news has been well entrenched across media with politicians, businessmen, celebrities and journalists are engaged in the art of  raining arrows at each other. Some are sharp enough to pierce and do the damage and some virtually boomerang.

In India it was the BJP which originally used the technology to the fullest for its campaign purposes.  BJP simply reigned supreme in poll related campaigns until 2014. In fact many attribute BJP and Modi’s mammoth victory to the intelligent and successful social media campaign.  The BJP remained unchallenged until 2013, in the digital space accordingly tailoring its narratives and counter narratives to suit its needs.

AAP took the cue from the huge success of Modi and followed suit. The party began its online campaign vigorously with well organised and forceful social media content.  In fact Congress realised the real impact of the social media much later and it started to focus seriously on the value of social media only from the Gujarat elections. Today, every party worth its name is active on the social media including the Left.

But, the fact remains that many of campaigns are not only instigated with a purpose. Though such campaigns fall in a tantalising grey zone, both the political parties and the leaders are not either ashamed or bothered to stay away from it.

Today every established political party has an IT cell, headed by people with expertise in the nuances of the social media such as posting and tweeting etc. Virtually they are paid heavily for trolling. In most parties, they act as powerful as the campaign mangers.

A troll is an active internet user who posts offensive, divisive and controversial comments with vested interests.   In a way troll is similar to bait for the simple reason, they purposely try to lure other Internet users into respond to carefully-designed incorrect statements or mis-information. Functionally, a troll is as dangerous as inanimate things like malware and bots and produces the same disruptive effects in the online space. Trolls are widespread in social networks   where users can post in relative anonymity.

When the so called “troll” experts”  speculate on behalf of their leaders, as most of the leaders hire experts to carry out the task, it creates serious repercussions  in the  minds of the thousands of followers and as expected  it spreads fast and reaches as many in a shortest time. By the time a rebuttal or a strong reply is being considered by the “victimised” party or the leader, the damage would have been done. This has become the common occurrence today.

Whether it is a funny collage or a smart meme or a bawdy stand-up jokes or action packed video, the purpose is similar: to tarnish the image and the reputation.

With the technology at their disposal, these acclaimed “troll” experts” are really busy in morphing old photographs and videos and release it again as though it just happened. Sometime, they cleverly change the movie dialogues to suit their campaigns or use the same dialogues of the super stars to support their cause. Though fake, indeed some of them are really interesting as well.

The political tolerance in the country has dipped to new low levels today. With the aid of technology the reach has widened beyond doubt, so is the trolls.  Indeed, parties and the netas are instantly matching trolls with trolls or tweets with tweet. 

Over the years trolling has become well organised and well targeted too in the social media spaces. With every political party using trolling as an important and successful weapon either to propagate their achievements or damage the opposition. The rise and use of social media coupled with the advantage of having multiple email addresses offering a great level of anonymity have resulted in a phenomenal growth of trolls. Today, it has virtually grown in to an industry itself.

Trolls have become the fodder for fake news. The alarming trends of trolls have directly contributed to the upsurge in the fake news.  The Political analysts as well as the social well-wishers have already been warning both the public as well as the political parties to curb the menace.

But, what happens in reality in the political circles is just whataboutery. The practice has been to rain a torrent of abuse for a sustained period.  So, when one party stands to gain out of such campaigns laced with misinformation, the other one retards back with even stronger campaigns with increased trolls.  It is actually no one holds barred situation which leads to the circulation of fake news resulting in not only  creating  lot of flutter but also directly contributing to the psyche of the gullible voters.

It is no secret that political parties are hiring experts for the job  and the social media industry reveals that these experts get paid anywhere between Rs 10 and Rs 100 per tweet, depending on the number of followers they have. So, naturally it has a direct bearing on the social status of the user – the more the followers the more they can influence and so is the package.

The kind of abuse, harassment and manipulated stories go unabated on the social media.  Ironically, today only few users are serious about what to believe. Majority of the users do not pay proper attention and simply apply cut and paste formulae, which indeed spreads the fake news like fire.

Crackdown on Fake News


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In an attempt to curb the increasing menace of fake news in various mediums including print and electronic media, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, in an unprecedented move, announced  stringent measures on to deal with  fake news.  The I&B Ministry went to the extent of permanently cancelling the accreditation of a journalist if the scribe is found generating or propagating fake news.

The Government initially amended the Guidelines for Accreditation of Journalists and said that it would be obligatory for all journalists to abide by the guidelines.  As per the amended guidelines for the accreditation of journalists, if the publication or telecast of fake news is confirmed, the accreditation of that journalist would be suspended for a period of six months in the first violation and for one year in case of a second violation. In case of a third violation, the journalist's accreditation would be cancelled permanently.

Once the complaint is registered for determination of fake news, the correspondent/journalist whoever created and/or propagated the fake news will, if accredited, have the accreditation suspended till such time the determination regarding the fake news is made by the regulating agencies mentioned above. The Accreditation Committee of the PIB which consists of representative of both Press Council of India (PCI) and News Broadcasters Association (NBA) shall be invariably be reached out to for validating any accreditation request of any news media agency. But, the Prime Minister duly intervened and ordered a roll back of the I&B Ministry's proposed move.

Though reports emerged that the prime minister was forced to roll back due to an "outpouring of public anger", the fact also remains that the guidelines were ambiguous and open to manoeuvring.  In a democracy, even if the government strives hard to control the media, it will amount to accusations that the government is trying to curtail free speech and muzzle media as a whole.  Moreover, the problem of fake news lies firmly in the grey areas of dissemination of information, as dissemination of information forms the foundation of democracy as everyone is entitled to his or her opinion.

But at the same time, it is also true that the fake news exploits such freedom allowed in a democracy and spreads mis-information which is bound to have a deleterious impact not only on the political parties and their leaders but also on the society as a whole.  The danger lies when such mis-information is magnified across different races, faiths, ethnicities and cultures in the country.  As a result, gullible people remain vulnerable to exploitation and insidious campaigns.

Fake news exists because journalists tend to misreport the facts. Fake news is peddled by journalists of both old and new media for vested  reasons either political or ideological. Because of lack of accountability  and stringent action,  fake news thrives. Further, political parties are willing to pay phenomenal sum to strategize and influence people to their political choice. Shocking reports have emerged that some established writers and journalists are being roped in as  part of the strategy to  write against their political opponents as well as the government.

Also, in the recent times a scenario has been created that fake news is a by-product of social media as though it did not exist when print media was ruling the roost. Fake news has been there for ages  and prevailed across the world with many  writers an journalists  used it to spread their views and opinions. In the Internet era, the fake news  only took  a digital avatar like and with the aid of  technology it  travelled   much faster  than the old media. Today, even TV channels are engaged in  airing blatantly fake reports.

If the government is convinced that fake news menace needs to be tackled, the government could have sought opinion from key stakeholders rather than meddling with it. In the true spirit of journalism, if news is aimed at the public, then it must adhere to certain guidelines.  Adherence to guidelines will never be possible unless the media houses and the journalists are subjected to certain degrees of accountability.

Indian media too needs some checks and Balances too, especially when questioning those in power. The fourth estate must be held accountable and they  cannot claim to be beyond accountability . Unfettered power in the grab of freedom of speech  should not be allowed to be misused. The question is how to make media accountable in a democracy.

As such the country is witnessing a huge surge in fake news, it is time the controlling agencies act with prudence.  With the cocktail of Facebook, Twitter and Whatsapp, it isincreasingly become easier and faster to reach out to millions with concocted and wrong information.

The fact remains,   India has not seen  any writer or a  journalist being hauled up by the Editors Guild of India. If higher bodies like Editor’s Guild fail to ensure accountability then it will not only lower the quality of journalism and also undermine the credibility of the media as a whole. Critically, the controlling  body has to be empowered more, otherwise the medium itself will become more vulnerable to fake news.

 

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