Feku, Fakery And The Fake News Band Wagon

Image: Frederick Burr Opper (1928)/Public Domain
Fake news has been around since the time of mythologies. The power of rumours has led to revolutions, riots and retweets.

Lies have always traveled faster than the truth. The saying, “A lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on,” was first written by G.H. Spurgeon in 1859. But this phrase was later incorrectly attributed to Mark Twain and even Winston Churchill.

Post-truth may seem like a modern phenomenon, and indeed, it is the latest buzzword (and Oxford dictionary’s word of the year for 2016) to reflect on the state of factual truth-reporting. Its consequences are varied; attributed to Brexit, the American election, and even communal riots. Technology – notably social media – is made to blame.

But rumours, unsubstantiated or otherwise, have played a role in politics since time immemorial. Even mythologies show us the consequences of rumour. In the various retellings of the Ramayana, Ram is told that Sita was unfaithful to him – the gossip of fishermen to the nefarious scheme of sister-in-laws – all concern allegations against Sita’s fidelity to Ram. Sita is exiled, made to walk through fire, or cast back into the ‘mother’ earth as a consequence of this rumour. Did Ram act on the basis of fake news?

Rumours and post-truth

One can also find an element of post-truth in the first major assault on the British empire in India. In the 19th century, when the telegraph was first introduced to India, a rumour spread that the telegraph poles were for hanging the opponents of the British Empire. The atmosphere of mistrust around British activities later led to the Revolt of 1857.

In 1857, a rumour spread that the greased cartridges used in the Enfield rifle, which soldiers of the British-Indian army had to bite into as part of a loading mechanism, were made of lard and tallow (pork and beef fat). This horrified the Hindu and Muslim sepoys alike and sparked the Revolt of 1857.

But this wasn’t the only rumour in circulation.

Others claimed that Britain, then fighting the Crimean War with Russia, was planning on sending the widows of soldiers who died in the war, to forcibly marry them to the landowners in India, thus keeping their land under Christian succession. Other rumours were also built on the growing idea of revolt – defeating Britain was not that impossible, they claimed, as Britain had just been invaded and annexed by Russia.

To aid the spread of information, an ingenious system of messaging was devised – the Chapati Scheme. Couriers would move from village to village, town to town, carrying nothing but Chapati (an unleavened bread). The actual message these Chapatis contained is unknown (some chapatis were opened up, but nothing was found inside), but they represented a form of communication that was faster than the British mail – a chapati could travel 200 miles in 24 hours.

But only the rumour of the greased cartridges held truth – and this too was not the entire story. The British-Indian Army, on learning that the grease was insulting to the soldiers, devised a different method of reloading cartridges. But the damage had already been done. The First War of Indian Independence owed its momentum to the power of rumour.

Fake news

Biased or falsified reportage can and has cost lives, particularly in times of riot. India and Pakistan’s bloody Partition is a case in point. Ilyas Chatta’s study of the newspaper reportage at the time reveals a media free-for-all. Papers picked sides in an ongoing conflict, supporting their co-religionists and blaming the ‘other’.”Hatred reports” emerged that went into great detail of the atrocities committed, sometimes naming those responsible.

False information resulted in mass panic, and stampedes. To counter this, the government air-dropped 20,000 newspapers to refugees in Amritsar, Lahore, Ferozepore and Jullundur. But what they couldn’t stop was the whispers and campaign of false news.

Ultimately, newspapers were trusted more than other sources. Later, on account of inflammatory publications by Hindu, Muslim and Sikh press outfits, a complete media crackdown was enforced. But there was no system in place to hold the press accountable for what they wrote.

Riot reporting in India remained fraught with danger, uncertainty and provocative falsehoods and truths alike. Communal organizations from across religions grew ever more skilled at provoking murderous mobs to do their bidding. In 2004, Paul Brass called the result the “Institutionalised Riot System.” By studying communal riots in Meerut in 1961 and 1982, he points out a pattern of misinformation, rabble-rousing, looming elections and multiple conflicting narratives. The implication is that communal agencies are better able to pre-mediate a riot in the post-Nehru era.

A decline in the people’s faith in the Indian state makes a ripe situation for propaganda. Insurgents have used this to their advantage, spreading unrest faster than counter-propagandists can urge calm. Post-truth dominated Pakistan’s national outlook – which constantly positioned India as an aggressor state, despite the opposite being true in India and Pakistan’s four major conflicts thus far. Often, these stories accompanied the influx of firearms – adding to Pakistan’s internal security problems.

Unaccountable mass media

Communally-targeted misinformation got an audio-visual stimulus from technology. In the 1990s, a proliferation of VHS tapes helped build the Hindutva movement for the demolition of the Babri Masjid. In Agra and Ghaziabad in the 1990s,” Hindutva tapes” mixed the sounds of gunfire, slogans, and chants of “Allah Akbar“, and were played from moving cars in communally sensitive areas.

The rise of private media has added to the social consequences of riot reportage. A study of the 2002 Gujarat riots by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) noted that regional newspapers such as Sandesh would present rumour as fact, alongside a barrage of provocative headlines.

In the last few decades, even demographics has become the latest victim of post-truth. The Census figures that show a rising share of Muslim population in India are used to imply that Muslims will soon outnumber Hindus. But this is a poor statistical reading – ignoring the socioeconomic factors that result in poorer Muslim communities having more children (a temporary trend).

The rise of the internet and social media has exponentially increased the scope to create false news. Several websites allow anyone to generate a story with an image that resembles a news article. This was used by an American ‘satirist’ in 2013 to spread a story about a ‘rape festival‘ being held in Assam.

Fake stories play on preconceptions about the other. And everyone is making them – prompting the emergence of a full-time fact-checking industry dedicated to debunking the claims of ‘fake news’. But what happens when world leaders follow these sources?. Much has been made of Donald Trump’s tendency to tune into Fox News and Breitbart for his news supply. But India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, also has a history of liking unreliable news sources.

In the aftermath of the 2002 riots, he praised Sandesh for their coverage, saying that they “served the humanity in a big way.” He follows Postcard News on Twitter (a fact the company’s founder proudly displays on his Twitter bio). Both these outlets have a history of communally divisive and dangerous content. Amid the ongoing communal tensions in West Bengal, Postcard News ran a story with the headline, “Mamata Banerjee’s terror continues in Bengal; Muslims try to attack a police station to lynch a minor boy.”

The contemporary fake news is getting more sophisticated, making it harder to detect right from wrong. Fact checkers often find photoshopped images taken from other countries used to display India in a particular light. Videos are doctored to create culpability when there is none. But catching these instances will not always be possible. Soon, a consumer-grade software will be able to edit a person’s speech – adding and removing words as needed.

The era of post-truth has long been upon us. The only real guard is being prepared to wait for a clearer picture. The truth still struggles to dress while lies go viral in seconds. And history shows that this is a precursor to disaster.


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