What is Fake News?
In the 2017 edition of its stylebook, the American non-profit Associated Press created a new entry in its manual. Titled, ‘fact checks, fake news’, the entry defines fake news as ‘the modern phenomenon of deliberate falsehoods or fiction masked as news circulating on the internet’.
Concerns about the insidious and far-reaching repercussions of this kind of content were first noticed during the 2016 US presidential elections when Donald Trump became the country’s president. In fact, BuzzFeed News found that twenty top-performing false election stories that appeared during that time performed better than twenty top-performing true ones done by major news organizations.
The concerns became so big and pervasive by the end of November that internet giants Google and Facebook even announced explicit measures aimed at tackling the phenomenon.
Similar concerns have been raised in India too. From blogs announcing that UNESCO had declared ‘Jana Gana Mana’ the best national anthem to WhatsApp-rumours claiming that the new ₹2000 note has a GPS chip, fake news infected even mainstream media, requiring institutions to step in and refute the claims.
Who Hosts ‘Fake News’ In India and Why?
In the USA, propagation of fake news seems to be closely entwined with the financial incentive or profit that comes with the engagement one gets from posting about a controversial figure. In India, things are more complicated. While money is an important incentive for some, mostly it is political ideology that’s driving the trend, making this phenomenon even more dangerous. That fake news is only a fraction of what gets published on these websites, makes it probably harder for their audience to sift fact from fiction.
Consider Anuj (31) and Garvit (30) Bhardwaj, brothers who started TheLotPot, another such news website, in October 2015 from Faridabad. While Anuj is an engineer-turned-manager in the IT industry, Garvit is a sales and marketing professional in the electrical industry.
When being interviewed for this story, both of them emphasized they were not running the site for the money. ‘Both of us are employed, but we also had our political thoughts and an ideology, right? We wanted to pursue that. This is the reason we started working on this [the website],’ says Anuj Bhardwaj.
The duo started out with publishing cartoon strips on Facebook, and when that worked, they decided to have more versatile content. Garvit suggests that ‘monetary terms’ with the website was a reason but Anuj reiterates that ‘the first motivation is [their] ideology’.
For Aishwarya S., who is an editor and writer with Postcard News, a website focused on issues that concern the right-wing in India, it’s not just about running a website. ‘We thought it was a national movement which was required to expose the hypocrisy of politicians, media and also some of the so-called intellectuals or, you’d say, people who call themselves secular or liberal,’ she says over the phone. ‘Some people do say that we get funding from political parties but it’s not really true,’ she adds.
While the Bhardwaj brothers said they were not for party politics, they defined ‘nationalism, justice for all, appeasement for none’ as their political goals. For the sixteen-year-old from Muzaffarpur, on the other hand, it is Hindu welfare that’s a driving force apart from money.
The Bhardwaj brothers were also peeved about disputed harassment stories, citing the cases of Jasleen Kaur and the Rohtak sisters as reasons for their motivation to expose the media. It is true that in both Kaur’s case and in the case of the Rohtak sisters, journalists fell prey to easy conclusions without conclusive evidence. It is also true that websites like TheLotPot commit the same mistakes while publishing their stories and perhaps commit the mistake more often – ending up ‘manufacturing’ news.
How Fake News Gets Manufactured
‘I get some stuff from those elder to me here [at the RSS office]. Sometimes I have to make news on my own to get traffic. If some comments are made, I use them too [to make content],’ the owner of Newspur says matter-of-factly.
The difference was that while mainstream media organizations reported it as a rumour that the RBI had denied, TheLotPot presented it as news.
For example, a few days ago, Newspur published a report claiming that Virat Kohli had supported the construction of a grand Ram temple in Ayodhya on Twitter – something that the owner conveniently made up on his own.
Others like TheLotPot and Postcard say they have their ‘own sources’ from ‘social media and on the ground’ for the news reports they write. ‘They might not be journalists but they are like-minded people who give us all those reports,’ Garvit Bhardwaj says, trying to bolster his case.
He goes on to explain how the duo ended up meeting some sources in November 2015, when actor Anupam Kher led a rally against those who claimed that there was growing intolerance in the country. ‘So this is how you build your sources, your links. And there were many popular Facebook pages there and this is how you build your links,’ the elder Bhardwaj says. Rumours circulating on WhatsApp seem to be a source for the websites, which sometimes turn them into ‘news’ without verification.
For example, the infamous WhatsApp demonetization forward, which claimed that the ₹2000 notes contained Nano GPS Chips, was picked up and published by TheLotPot as well as other major media organizations. The difference was that while mainstream media organizations reported it as a rumour that the RBI had denied, TheLotPot presented it as news.
Postcard News also claimed to have ‘reliable sources’ and ‘many people on ground’. Over the phone, the Postcard editor told YKA that a team of fifteen regular contributors write on the website but refused to talk about their sources of information, asking us instead to believe they were indeed ‘reliable’.
But it is the same website that published a report, misleadingly marked in the ‘opinion’ category, saying that the Congress is the fourth most corrupt political party in the world, citing BBC News Point, another site (not to be confused with the London-based media giant) that didn’t care much for disclosing its source either. Interestingly, the Postcard story begins by criticizing Indian mainstream media for losing credibility ‘with their fake news and lies’.