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Fake News and Its Impact on Politics

Fake News and Its Impact on Politics

By Muskaan Desai

At first, it becomes imperative to define the term fake news. More importantly, to define the extent of manipulation one expects from certain content, to compartmentalise it to be a fake one. It has by now become clear that any fact-based statement affecting/manipulating the opinions of the public at large is fake news. For example, if the public inherently detests the idea of a particular ‘so-called-influential’ person, then his statements, let be false, have no impact on the public. Though it might be ‘legally fake’, it causes no injury (insatiable manipulation) to the larger society. So, overlooking the risk of over-simplification, it can be said that anything that tends to mould the world view of people in a tangent off the presently held one is dangerous. Therefore, not only facts, but also unwarranted opinions stated in public domain, causing unrest can be brought under the ambit of fake news. This gives a wider and a new interpretation to the most widely and abusively used term ‘fake news’.

The statistics on the gravity of fake news makes it clear that it is becoming a problem, causing lack of trust in the institutions. What becomes a more pressing question is that when the fake news whether on social media or news media, is circulated by the political parties to gain leverage for themselves, what sort of impact does it have on the trust index of the citizens. In this case, the news media is paid to spread unconscionable news about the rival parties and thus brings in the major question that: “Does this manipulation of public views takes place at different multitudes, which impacts the democratic fabric, political fabric of the common people, and is in turn controlled largely by the representatives of these people?”. Such politically charged statements’ veracity is backed by these powerful executive institutions and thus cannot be falsified. This is one of the tactics used to dodge the allegations of defamation.

The fake news (social and news media) is largely accessible to the ‘literate and preferably English speaking’ population, in the Indian context. But it can be intuitively told that the more gullible ones are influenced directly by the party workers or the people officially recruited to do so. Surprisingly, there is no legal framework put in place, except the ones against hate speech, sedition, public morality and defamation. How these offences can be connected to fake news problem would be discussed in the later part of my article.

I’d focus on the impact of fake/paid news on Indian politics in general and elections 2019 in specific. It becomes important at this stage to look at hard core data in order to substantiate the opinions made in the above paragraphs.

According to a Microsoft report, Indian internet users are more likely to have been subjected to fake news than any others. The Internet and Mobile Association of India and Factly carried out an interesting survey that threw up some surprising and some not-so-surprising findings about the fake news phenomenon in India. The most surprising finding perhaps was how only a very small percentage of people are completely swayed by “viral” information on social media. Trust in “mainstream media” is still high — whether for providing actual news or busting fake news. The unsurprising finding was that those below the age of 20 and those above the age of 50 were the most susceptible to falling for “fake news”. Likewise, those newer to the use of internet are more likely to believe “fake news” than those who have used it for a while.[1]

Again, the surveys conducted do not provide for a holistic view of the issue and are open to several loopholes. This survey was taken by only 900 participants, out of which majority was male. Moreover, English-speaking educated male, as the survey was in English. This shows a lack of representation of women and other social strata, generalising the elite perspective as majority one. This shows how inadequate is the data presently available on the issue at hand.

 

 

THE FAKE NEWS UPSURGE DURING GENERAL ELECTIONS

In the month of March, 2014, the nation was buzzing in the election mood. For the first time in the nation's history, digital media, a force that had grown powerful over the last decade, was employed aggressively by political parties to woo the voters. “After all, nearly 37 percent of urban Indian voters were connected to some form of social media, according to a survey by Google in 2013.” [2]The digital platform not only helped bring in a huge number of new voters, but also swayed them into favouring a particular party. Not only factual data, but stuff like memes, photoshopped pictures, which had the potential of manipulating the public’s outlook also constituted ‘fake news’. Yet, as this news was backed by those powerful political parties, it continued to have a long lasting effect and became a new definition of ‘publicity’ in the public domain, leading to such practices becoming highly uncontrollable. On the other hand, such fake news incites mass violence. For example, a simple WhatsApp message calling a particular group to be ‘anti-national’ incited violence and led to the death of three people. This is not an isolated incident. There have been many such chain of incidents, especially during the election fervour, which become a factor to worry about. It can also be seen that this sort of upsurge is at times caused by a political party to defame its rival one. This had existed long before digital media or TV media had come into existence. It was only through the way of a charged speech about a certain religious community, speaking constructed stuff or spreading rumours through word of mouth, that had led to mass killings among public. The example most relatable is that of ‘Hindu Muslim’ upsurge in the old-city of Hyderabad, which was said to be incited by one of the political parties to gather votes in its favour. We know that there has been am upsurge of fake news. Let’s look at this study which substantiates the point that most of it had been circulated by the political parties. “In India, there is a stronger culture around using WhatsApp—user-curated public and private groups are a common way to connect with friends, family, and the broader community, Bradshaw said. The popularity of the Facebook-owned instant messenger is why distorted campaigns breed on it, she said. With over 200 million active users, WhatsApp is the most widely-used messaging app in India. The researchers even found instances wherein political campaigners in India hired public relations or consulting firms to spread online propaganda.”[3]

The governing Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) reportedly established thousands of WhatsApp groups to reach their electorate directly in preparation for the upcoming election in 2019. Amit Shah, Party President, seems to be one of each of them trying to stop the dissemination of false news. In 2014, however, the BJP was accused of birth of internet trolls and fake photographs as the first social media was developed as a crucial campaigning tool for Indian political parties. Even during some state elections this year, WhatsApp reportedly housed rampant misinformation from multiple political actors. On Twitter, researchers found evidence of political parties using bots to enhance or retweet their followers, such as, or share content that supports campaigning. Automatic accounts enable you to reach more audiences and you can generate trends.

“Prime Minister Narendra Modi picks up a child, who leans towa­rds two microphones in front of her and appears to utter a dero­gatory phrase often used by the BJP to mock Congress president Rahul Gandhi. That’s all there is in the 23-second video clip. But wait. There is another clip. The same clip, in fact. Only this time the child ridi­cules Modi himself, as she repeats what appears to be a Twitter campaign launched by the Congress. It later emerges that the original clip, dating back to 2016, was of a differently-abled child, Gauri Shardul, reciting a shloka from the Rama­yana during one of Modi’s visits to his home state, Gujarat.”[4]

The video clip is a classic case study on "fake news;" the new world menace described by the Collins dictionary last year as "a very real word," and is both doctor-made and widely spread over the social media and WhatsApp in India. Over the last few years, the false news has moved beyond its classic description of "false, often sensational, news-reported information." It is now predominantly a tool for the development of rival parties with doctored audio and photographic videos and morphs. There are growing indications that fake news will play a big role in the run up to the 2019 general elections. For lack of statistics, but presence of the back up evidence it becomes evident that how the election campaigning is deeply thwarted. This makes it clear that the general elections May,2019 is to see a huge manipulation of public opinion through unwarranted knowledge production, which needs to be brought under control.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

REGULATIONS PUT IN PLACE

When the case of the contesting candidates using pecuniary influence in order to dissipate paid (fake) news had come up before the Delhi High Court, it ruled that the Election Commission of India keep check upon the funding of individual candidates in order to deter them from claiming a monopoly over influencing public through using one’s monetary strength. [5]But the loophole it has is that there is no cap on the party spending whatsoever, thus no where regulating the candidate’s party using its influence on the public through various means. The approach not being free from loopholes, has other repercussions as well. The basis on which these parties manipulate public, especially in a country like India, is the sentiments the people hold as the core of their living. Religion, caste, gender and nationalism are the most exploited and misused terms. These being largely social constructs, tend to have a very wide scope of interpretation leading to inciting the feelings of hatred, disharmony.

 

 

 

LEGAL CONCERNS

What becomes more important at the moment is the need for formulation of new cyber specific regulations and reform in the existing ones. Presently, dissipation of fake news is not a crime in India. The offences against person like defamation, offences against public morality which comes as an exception to freedom of expression and offences against state at large like sedition are the individual crimes that can be attached with fake news. In case any misappropriate statement is made against any person, truth cannot be taken as a defence, thus making people liable for defamation. In case of news spread around sexual offences committed by rival political parties (as the article focuses mainly on the present fervour of elections), and any person is inappropriately depicted, it might lead to issues of public morality. Again, the anti-national sentiments perpetrated, if lead to a huge upsurge amongst public or probably mass riots against the present government, might be brought under sedition. It becomes imperative to note that there are no separate laws in place to help the concern of fake news. More importantly, along with the social media, it is also the news media that is largely responsible for spreading manipulative content. In my research on the recent Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2019 passed in the Lok Sabha, this issue of newspaper media had come into light. Let it be paper or TV media, they tend to support their largest investors (Ex: Times of India newspaper) or the parties that support their ideologies (Ex: Republic Tv, Indian Express). Though ‘net neutrality’ sought to control such news in the digital space, though not being very successful, there have been no regulations even broadly discussed concerning the other form of media. Moreover, it is the senior leaders of parties themselves who outrightly spread manipulative (analogous to fake) content on the TV news channels, bringing in the pressing need of putting specific regulations in place.


 

CONCLUSION

It could therefore be said that news is used as a tool by political parties to influence their own political stance. It nowhere effects the politics, but it’s the politics that creates such news (fear of over generalization) and affects the democratic fabric of the country. There is a need to ask the right question, using politics in a very lay man sense: “Is it the more influential parties that effect the public at large or is it these parties trying to form cults through various means?” “Is there a need to broaden the definition of the term ‘fake news’ as I’ve already argued upon in the first part of the article. Throughout the research the information on fake news and its effects was very restrictive due to the sort of interpretation it has obtained in the public domain. Though there has been thorough discussion on the issue, no remedies have been tried to be offered whatsoever. The approach taken has been a very specific to general one, which the author of this paper does not completely agree with. A general analysis and specific conclusions would yield better results when surrounded by such a vast issue. Therefore, the salvageable title for this issue should be “Fake News or fake news: Asking the right questions” 

 


[1] “How Ill-Equipped Indian Laws Are to Deal with Fake News This Election Season.” 2019. FactorDaily. February 26, 2019. https://factordaily.com/indian-laws-elections-fake-news/.

 

[2] Nyhan, Brendan. 2019. “Why Fears of Fake News Are Overhyped – Reasonable Doubt.” Medium. February 4, 2019. https://medium.com/s/reasonable-doubt/why-fears-of-fake-news-are-overhyped-2ed9ca0a52c9.

 

[3] Bhattacharya, Ananya. n.d. “Oxford Researchers Warn India of a Fake-News Epidemic as Elections Approach.” Quartz India. Accessed March 27, 2019. https://qz.com/india/1335161/indias-fake-news-crisis-to-worsen-ahead-of-election-oxford-study/.

 

[4] “How Is The Fake News Factory Structured?” n.d. Https://Www.Outlookindia.Com/. Accessed March 27, 2019. https://www.outlookindia.com/magazine/story/how-is-the-fake-news-factory-structured/300965.

 

[5] “How Ill-Equipped Indian Laws Are to Deal with Fake News This Election Season.” 2019. FactorDaily. February 26, 2019. https://factordaily.com/indian-laws-elections-fake-news/.

 

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