Fake news: Will social media be the downfall of democracy?

Social media (the collective of online communication channels dedicated to community-based input, interaction, content-sharing and collaboration) has a dynamic and ever changing presence. Even as it mutates, it is changing the way we live our lives – our saving and consumption behaviour, our fitness and lifestyle and now, even our voting patterns. Andrea Noronha, looks at its impact on democracy as we know it in this thought provoking article.

Social Media (Facebook, Twitter, Reddit et al) has gone from being that thing you used to watch cat videos to that thing you depend on for your daily bread, in no time. Gone are the days when only the rich had access to the internet. Infomercials about how to send an email, which at one time could have been considered a life saver, now look like a really tacky parody.

Everyone from your grandparents to your new born infant has either heard of or has used social media in some way, shape or form. In fact, a Facebook page and Instagram account is often created by their parents or older siblings (sometimes as old as six or seven!) for infants the day they are born, to chronicle their growth into fine human beings!)

Now, anyone not on Facebook or anyone who doesn’t “Google” anything should, according to some people, be placed behind bulletproof cases in a museum.
Over the past few years, we have seen the growing role of social media in the campaign of various political parties. We have also seen how social media can be used to hand the keys of, arguably, the most powerful nation, to someone who has zero experience in the political field. While I will not make any comments on the capabilities of any political leader, I will say that it is pretty scary to see how social media turned an entire government on its head, effectively turning it into a punch line, with key personnel being changed more often than the host of SNL (Saturday Night Live).

It’s now common knowledge that Russia hijacked the US Presidential elections with the use of “fake news” propaganda. The people, who were already polarised by years of mud-slinging by either side of the political divide, were prime candidates for the “fake news” virus to take root and do its work.

This disease is not limited to lands beyond the horizon... and this is unfortunate to say the least. India has been attacked numerous times. While our forefathers’ enemies attacked with gunfire and bombs, our opponents use propaganda memes and fake WhatsApp messages designed to either create fear or inspire hope and admiration... depending on their agenda.

If you use Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, Tumblr, Rediff, Reddit, this, that, blah, etc., or even if you just use your internet to browse, you would have seen these themed cartoons called “memes.” Although spelt M E M E, it is pronounced MEEM... if you don’t agree... try saying “ME ME” out loud in a public place packed with teenagers – You will be surprised when they enthusiastically correct you. I won’t!

What is a Meme?

A meme according to Wikipedia “is an idea, behaviour or style that spreads from person to person within a culture—often with the aim of conveying a particular phenomenon, theme, or meaning represented by the meme.” Therefore, a meme is not limited to an image. It can also be a short video clip or a Gif (I still don’t know how to pronounce that!), or even a piece of text. They are often humorous in nature.

While I totally agree with the use of a meme to convey how much I hate this damn summer heat… I do not appreciate being told via meme that Modi’s mother travels in an auto rickshaw while Rahul’s mother travels like a diva, or that Modi was garlanding a bust of NathuramGodse. Memes are meant to be cool. Don’t involve them in politics... just DON’T! Politics is not humorous by nature, though it has its moments!

Memes follow the KISS rule... Keep It Short and Simple. Memes are simple (when it comes to making and reading them), visually appealing, to the point and therefore… effective.

“Memelord” is a coveted position these days. Contrary to popular belief, not just “anyone” can make an effective meme. Granted that most of the memes that go viral are accidental and more often than not, innocent. But, it takes a true mastermind to create something with the intention of making it go viral.

What is “Fake News” and what are the risks?

“Fake news” has been around for like… ages!

Ever heard of this one guy named Hitler? Yeah! The same one, the Nazi Dictator! Nazis used “fake news” too. Ever seen the nasty images they made of the Jews? No? Pick up a history book. Better yet… Google them. They were good at it. Back then of course, they did not have fancy terms like “fake news”… It was just called plain old “propaganda.” And Hitler’s close friend Reich Minister of Propaganda of Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945 was a master at it.

Despite what US President Donald Trump says, “fake news” is not news that you don’t agree with or like. “Fake News” is basically news that is not true and is not based on or supported by facts or evidence (Sometimes how you look at facts too determines your view of the news).

“Fake news” would be harmless if it did not cause as much damage as we have seen them cause over the years.

It is easy to spread considering the lack of effort required to just share something with a click or a touch. People hit the “share” button before they can think or even read the message. It’s become like breathing to some. There is less fact checking and more fanning of flames – political, communal, national, and religious.
After years of sharing any shocking or funny meme without thinking twice, I saw people online who said that something I shared online was false. I am a trusting person, and I was shocked to find out that many things I believed to be fact, were actually fake. Feeling aghast and betrayed, I decided to never share any meme that posed as fact... no matter how much I agreed with it. I decided to stick to sharing dog and cat memes (depending on the cat). A dog will never betray you... will it?

In India alone, we have seen doctored photographs or even thoughtlessly scripted messages doing the rounds and ultimately leading to the deaths of targeted individuals. Last year in May, the state of Jharkhand was witness to the lynching of seven innocent men, following widespread panic caused by a WhatsApp message warning people of “child lifters”.

Although “fake news” may not always take a fatal turn like it did in Jharkhand, even benign rumours can cause a festering wound that could lead to the fall of a nation later if not sooner, if left unchecked. Just in the last few months we have seen doctored images of two men at an Istanbul airport reading, “Beware in sending your females to India #JusticeforAsifa”, while another one reads: “Women are not worthy as cows in India #JusticeforAsifa” going viral on social media. Although many agreed with the message, it should make one wonder what was the agenda behind such an attempt.

The real danger perhaps, is that some “fake news” may go undetected if a majority of people agree with the underlying message in a meme. As in the aforementioned case, many shared the images without a second thought either because they agreed with the message or because they were ashamed that that was how the outside world viewed us as a country.

“Fake news” and politics

Ordinary citizens are however, not the only ones that fall prey to “fake news”, let alone manufacture it. Political personalities are also known to have either knowingly or unknowingly indulged in this dangerous game of deception. Very recently, Shashi Tharoor was called out for sharing a tweet saying that former RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan was appointed Governor of the Bank of England.

And earlier this year, it was reported by a fact checking website that the Congress party’s official Twitter handle conducted a poll based on “fake news”. The tweet read: “The Department of Telecom (DoT) has issued a directive instructing all telecom operators in the country to start issuing 13-digit mobile numbers later this year. Are you happy with this decision? #IndiaSpeaks.”

MP Vijay Sampla was also at the centre of a “fake news” scandal just recently, when he shared a four year old photo of HirabenModi, the 96-year-old mother of Prime Minister Modi, sitting in an auto rickshaw.

His tweet read: “Our Beloved PM Shri@narendramodi ‘s Mother is still travelling in Auto, While @RahulGandhi ‘s Mother is the World’s 4th Wealthiest Politician!#NarendraModi”. While many called out the MP for sharing a fake photo, the fact checking website clarified that although the photo was not doctored in any way, it was nearly four years old.

Even though I was not able to locate a cleverly crafted apology from MP Sampla through Google, I did find one from Shashi Tharoor. He clarified that what he shared was “fake news”... in a disappointingly lacklustre fashion as compared to his usual “farrago” of dramatic flair and vocabulary... see what I did there?

When asked what contributed to the effectiveness of “fake news”, Preethi (a senior journalist and author) opined that unconfirmed rumours, easy platforms to spread the “fake news”and volatile situations lend to the effectiveness of misleading news. Mr Anonymous is of the opinion that people today do not have enough patience and share “news” on impulse.

We should be thankful for the existence of fact checkers to protect us from “fake news.” But, unless we take the effort to check the facts, the service rendered by these good Samaritans will be in vain.

One country that has managed to steer clear of the “fake news” bug is Finland. Their traditional media is quick to debunk rumours and fibs online. ElinaGrundström, the chairperson of the Finnish Council of Mass Media (CMM), told the International Press Institute in an interview, “In Finland, the traditional media is quite resistant to the spread of “fake news” due to our strong self-regulatory system.” She added that journalists are exceptionally dedicated to upholding agreed-upon journalistic ethics, and this system has prevented the worst effects of the “fake news” phenomenon.

Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and Indian political parties

News Karnataka asked Preethi Nagaraj regarding the role of social media in a democratic set up such as ours. According to her, India saw wide use of social media campaigning in the run up to the 2014 general elections. “Before that, we had mobiles but it was not a popular medium to reach the masses because the rate of penetration of the technology itself was so dismal,” she said.

Under condition of anonymity, another senior journalist (we’ll refer to this individual as Mr. Anonymous here because first... it sounds damn cool and second... it makes my life easier) told News Karnataka that political parties have been using social media for a long time. When I asked Mr Anonymous which political party was more social media savvy, he said that both the BJP and the Congress parties are equally competent. Looks like they share the crown this time, but whoever has a more subtle and consistent social media presence, rather than an in your face one as was the case in the past, is likely to fare better come 2019. For the effect of social media has had on the Karnataka Assembly election 2018 one only has to follow twitter to see who is winning the battle!

As news of Indian political parties using the services of the now defunct Cambridge Analytica came to light, early this year, there was a huge uproar and a lot of mud-slinging between parties. Red faced politicians sent out their spokespersons to quell the flames that their deception had lit up, who took every opportunity to quip and “clap back” at their political opponents.

In all this mud fight, the big losers were the people. Sure the politicians were covered with the metaphorical mud but, we the bystanders and innocent passers-by had mud spatter us too… But did we hear an apology? From anyone? Aren’t we the real victims here?

The revelations by former Cambridge Analytica (CA) employee and whistleblower Christopher Wylie, about the connection between his former employer and the political parties in India (that dated back to c. 2003), really puts a mirror in front of us to show us our vulnerabilities.

His tweet reading, “I’ve been getting a lot of requests from Indian journalists, so here are some of SCL’s past projects in India. To the most frequently asked question - yes SCL/CA works in India and has offices there. This is what modern colonialism looks like”, worried me considering his choice of the word “colonialism” to describe the situation.

The data breach scandal involving Facebook and Cambridge Analytica is a major red flag considering the potential damage such practices can cause to a democracy... or can we even call them a democracy anymore?

When asked if the combination of the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the controversy surrounding the EVMs suggested an attempt to rig the elections, Preethi said that they were all unrelated and could not be thought off in the same line. Facebook and Cambridge Analytica are external influences, she added. Mr. Anonymous also shared his opinion and said that the two instances were unrelated. He also gave credit to the Election Commission for doing a swell job in ensuring a free and fair election process.

With various political parties trying everything in their power to turn the tide in their favour, they forget that they are elected by the people, they are of the people and most importantly... for the people.

Can what happened in America happen in India?

When asked about the effect of fake news on the Indian voter, Preethi Nagaraj and Mr Anonymous differed. While Preethi believes that there is a “good amount of impact”, Mr Anonymous is of the opinion that “fake news” has a minimal effect on the people. “They know how to decipher what is fake and what is not. People I know always wait for something to come on TV or in the papers before they believe something,” he explained. Preethi however added that there was no real way to tell for sure. “I’m not sure. There is WhatsApp penetration present for sure but, it is too soon to tell. We are still studying this phenomenon and still trying to understand it. There isn’t enough data to suggest whether or not something like this can happen here. We can only do a post event analysis and not a pre event analysis.”

While her answer neither inspired nor dashed whatever hope was left in me, I did get the sense that there was no point in biting my nails clean off just yet, because I too believe India is too diverse, with no clear divides and therefore is not easy to befuddle or manoeuvre.

Mr Anonymous’ words too reflected my thinking (they were independent of my influence!) According to him, our democracy is the largest in the world and it wouldn’t be possible for such a stunt to be pulled. He also added that the people of our country were vigilant and intelligent.

As far as we can tell, there is no force outside our country trying to influence our elections. Apart from Pakistan attempting to make us look bad in front of the world with their (honestly) LOL and lame Photoshop game, there is no real outside threat… politically speaking.

Right now however, our main concern is our own “representatives” using our data against us… well, not exactly against us, more like against their opponents but, “man why do they need our data at all?” if not to influence our decisions against their opponents?

Fact checkers: Saviours of Democracy

The volume and reach of fake news is increasing by the day. Even photos of newspapers cannot be trusted, as we saw just a few weeks ago when a photo-shopped article of the Times of India newspaper did the rounds on social media. One cannot be certain if the agenda was to hurt the newspaper or if it was to hurt the prime minister or humour the public (they do need it in trying times), but, in any case, such tomfoolery does not always bode well for the “tom” indulging in the “foolery”, given the increased focus on it by investigative agencies and the social media firms themselves now a days.

No doubt it is important for us to fact check everything we read and/or hear before we go about sharing “information”. Fact checking is a herculean task. If we were to sit and fact check every single meme or “news” that we come across, we would have to quit our day jobs, because there is no way we could manage our normal lives and fact check at the same time. Who knows what dark corridors we would have to traverse in order to find the truth? Who knows what kinds of monsters live in the dark pits from whence these “fekus” (as in fake news) originate? And anyway, who cares if it’s wrong – its sensational, it’s often funny, and it has the ring of truth – after all there is no smoke without a fire! So…

Luckily, we are not alone in this journey and don’t have to check facts by ourselves. There are various fact checking sites, run by heroes who tirelessly work to call out all the fakes and… as Shashi Tharoor said… set the record straight. Mr Anonymous opined that fact checkers were important as facts, he said, were “sacred.”

Preethi agreed that fact checkers are invaluable. However, it's we who need to decide whether to check if something is true or fake. The fact checkers can only do so much. It is up to us to thirst for the truth.

Is anyone safe from “fake news”?

None of us is really safe from “fake news.” Though Social Media handles like Facebook recently took out full page newspaper ads – at least in Karnataka – that educated the user on how detect and report fake news. These are the pointers they provided…

India’s policing and investigative agencies too are on the ball. Recently in Bengaluru, the founder of Postcard News, Mahesh Vikram Hegde was arrested by the Central Crime Branch of the city for spreading fake and communally sensitive news. Although he was released on bail a few days later, we can see that there is some effort being made to curtail this widespread affliction.

I asked both Preethi and Mr Anonymous if those spreading “fake news” should be held responsible. “I would think it’s fair to expect everyone to be responsible for what they share as news,” Preethi opined. She also advocated for a mechanism to differentiate between fake and genuine news. Mr Anonymous opined, “It would be difficult to hold any one person responsible, as finding the source can be difficult.” Showing more faith in humanity than I had, he added, “People are intelligent. They know what to share. But they need to be vigilant”

Now, some of you might be thinking that you are too educated or too intelligent to fall prey to “fake news”. No one is immune to lies…especially if it tells them what they are inclined to hear - Well, except for the dead… but, who’s gonna listen to them? Reminds me of what Abraham Lincoln said in a meme, “Don’t believe everything you read on the internet just because there’s a picture with a quote next to it.” (LOL).

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of Karnatakatoday.com and Karnatakatoday.com does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.