Satan’s serpent, snake charmers and unmasking ‘fake news’

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

Jan 26, New Delhi:  An US President that declares ‘Fake News Awards’. A Pope, who gives a clarion call to unmask manipulative “snake tactics” of Satan’s serpent-those spreading fake news.

Coming to India, the fourth estate that once championed the cause of democracy and fought for upholding values of Indian Constitution, now showcasing mere puppetry in disguise of journalism.

Sample these “tough questions”, from mainstream Indian TV anchors to the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is known to keep his official distance from media— PTM -Putin Trump Modi. This is the New World Order?”   or  “If world economic institutions like IMF and World Bank are convinced about ‘demonetisation’ and ‘GST’, then why is our domestic constituency not convinced with ‘demonetisation’ and GST?”

As History in ‘golden words’ will mark this era as great fight between News vs Fake News- in present tense  it is fight between those advocating  the truth and  freedom of expression and  the other in words of Pope Francis “unwilling accomplices in spreading biased and baseless ideas”.  Terming fake news as “Satan’s serpent’ Pope said, “This false but believable news is ‘captious’, in as much as it grasps people’s attention by appealing to stereotypes and common social prejudices, and exploiting instantaneous emotions like anxiety, contempt, anger and frustration,”

Snake Charmers of Indian Media And Art of Unmasking ‘fake news’

According to the Freedom of Press 2017 report, global press freedom declined to its lowest point in 13 years in 2016 amidst unprecedented threats to journalists and media outlets in major democracies and new moves by authoritarian states to control the media, including beyond their borders.

The report stated that only 13 percent of the world’s population enjoys a Free press—that is, a media environment where coverage of political news is robust, the safety of journalists is guaranteed, state intrusion in media affairs is minimal, and the press is not subject to onerous legal or economic pressures. And while Indian media remains the freest in South Asia, journalists in the country continue to face an array of obstacles, including legal threats and arrest in connection with their work.

Pratik Sinha, co-founder for the popular news portal Alt News that  has carved a niche for itself trying to fight the menace of fake news in India , is of the opinion that a section of mainstream media have become mouth pieces of the government. “There have been instances recently where sections of media had to pull down anti-government stories.” he said.

He goes on to add how today media narrative is not only set by mainstream media but also social media.

The real menace however seems to be the growing number of fake news sites. The phenomenon of fake news poses a big challenge to any democracy. There is growing concern among global net users about fake news online, according to a BBC World Service poll carried out in 2017. In the survey of 18 countries, 79% of respondents said they worried about what was fake and what was real on the internet.

Pankaj Jain from Mumbai, who started Hoax Slayer in 2015,  annoyed by fake news forwarded by acquaintances said ‘Usually only the biased people fall for fake news and spread it too.” Hoax Slayer was the first to break the news that that India’s new 2,000-rupee note was embedded with a “Nano GPS chip” that allowed authorities to track it if it was taken outside the country. Hoax Slayer’ has busted over 1500 fake forwards on WhatsApp.

Every different work brings with it the perils of criticism and these days healthy criticism has been replaced by online trolls, abusing and threats.

India currently has in between 300-400 million smartphone users. There are about 650 million mobile phone users in India, and just over 300 million of them have a smartphone, according to Counterpoint Research. Two out of three Indian mobile users — or roughly 433 million people — are planning to upgrade their phones in the next year. Which means spread of news or for that matter fake news will see an upward spiral.

Pratik Sinha raised concern over the quality of journalism today. “Quality of journalism has done down, there is no morality left today and TV media is worse they simply delete the story or delete the videos there is no apology issued. Overall credibility is low today” he says referring to a recent incident when a leading news channel had to issue an apology to another channel for showing one of it’s reporter as a goon during a rally. ” It was done because it involved another channel, had it been a common man they wouldn’t even have bothered to issue an apology.’ says Sinha.

According to Sinha “with fake news danger is once one political party starts it. all others follow suit and it has reached dangerous proportion today.” “There was a time when for polarization, political parties used to covertly and overtly indulge in rioting but today you don’t need to do that, you just have to post a video and create polarization.” He cites the glaring example of how mobs in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand beat seven people to death in two separate incidents and the trigger was a WhatsApp message that had gone viral, urging people to be careful of strangers as they most likely belonged to a “child lifting gang”.

While Sinha operates from Gujarat, Alt News today with nearly 70,000 followers to their Facebook page is run by a team of five people spread across the country who unlike Sinha works in anonymity with one of the co-founders also being the admin for the other very popular page Unofficial Subramanian Swamy. The team at Alt News works round the clock in exposing fake news be it through Google Reverse Image Search, cross checking facts from Press Information Bureau Archives or speaking to experts.

Boom Live is another platform in India where  fake news get busted. Here too like Alt News and Hoax Slayer, journalists work hard to present before readers facts, which counters the fake news.

To sum up lets again listen to Pope’s words. “The role of journalists is not just a job, it is a mission and theyhave responsibility to stem fake news…Journalism should be less concentrated on breaking news than on exploring the underlying causes of conflicts … a journalism committed to pointing out alternatives to the escalation of shouting matches and verbal violence.”