There is spate of lynching incidents reported from different parts of India. Many of them are attributed to fake news that is discovered much after the damage is being done.
The Supreme Court of India has become agog to such frightening reality and had ordered the Centre and the State governments to take immediate steps to stop the dissemination of misinformation causing mortal harms to the individuals.
This phenomenon is reaching alarming levels forcing the government to direct the social media to control its fake content. It’s even contemplating to make legislation to arrest this growing trend.
The phenomenon of fake news which is caught in the cesspool of blame game. The court is asking the government, the government is asking the state governments and social media and the social media is putting the onus on the public.
In this blame game, fake news is having a fields day. The civil society is a spectator to the lynch mobs that is on prowl at the drop a hat taking innocent lives. It appears the phenomenon of fake news has acquired persuasive power with a tendency to whip up mob frenzy. It appears Indian democracy is being converted into mobocracy and lynchocracy. This is a serious issue and has to be dealt with all the seriousness it deserves.
The very concept of fake news is the intentional spreading of misinformation. There are many sources of fake news. This can be individuals, lobbies, groups and even governments. Invariable, all have their own selfish axe to grind. The motive behind fake news is to whip up emotions and reap the benefits of its cascading effects.
Fake news can be extremely dangerous if one cynical believe it to be true. The mother of all ‘fake news’ was the 2003 Iraq War, when the fake news was circulated that the then Iraqi dictator possessed weapons of mass destruction. Never in recent memory such chicanery of fake news was created that caused so much havoc in the world. This misinformation lured the Bush administration to go to war with Iraq. And we all know what happened in its aftermath.
In hindsight, if the then US administration had bothered to check the reliability of such information and have not blindly have become susceptible to such fake news, perhaps world would have been a better place to live.
Here, one wonders what would have been the trajectory of events, if social media, which are now considered to be the biggest carriers of fake news, was present at that point of time. Could it have exacerbated that fake news or it had deflated.
Well that is past, let’s talk about the pros and cons of the Supreme Court’s order to the governments to find ways and means to control this horrifying trend. The government can either make legislation with punitive action to punish the culprits of the fake news or strengthen its vigilance over social media.
The fear is any legislation made the government to control “fake news” could prove to be counterproductive. It may be used to target its critics and penalties in such case may stifle legitimate social discourse and divergent opinions. Many a time the governments itself are the chief source of fake news. In such case can governments be entrusted with the responsibility to control the fake news?
Notwithstanding the facts, it’s now an accepted fact that the social media platforms are the biggest source of ‘fake news’ generation. This is because the online news industry is facing stiff competition and the digital media revenues are dwindling. Unable to shore up its revenue Social Media are dishing out fake content to attract more page views.
This is a survival tactics of the online news industry which have adopted a certain kind of approach towards journalism that thrives on flashy ‘click-bait’ stories.Aimed at shoring up advertisements, it is creating contents that can go viral and can create maximum amount of page views. As a result, fake news have become a necessity on the social media platforms.
Thanks to the US President Donald Trump who has blown the lid over the fake news industry. Now this problem has acquired a global dimension and countries are waking up to this reality. Each country in their own way are trying to grapple with this menace but have yet to find a tangible solution to this problem.
Since a great deal of fake news is disseminated on social media platforms, the onus is on the social media outlets to control the intentional misinformation. The focus should be more at the tech platforms like Google, Apple and Facebook, where a great deal of information is generated. These tech platforms have the technical capacity to identify and delete inappropriate contents. Closing bogus accounts, blocking obvious offensive content and expanding third-party fact-checking are some options available to them.
People‘s expectation is since these tech companies control smart-phone operating systems they can reinvigorate their commitment to creating built-in opportunities for affirmative creation of civically useful news.
Further, there is need to educate people how to consume news and to report abuse, or stories that are fake or disputed. The social media platform needs to educate users to identify disinformation and to block them making use of their filters.
Lastly, all stakeholders have to bear a personal responsibility for the dissemination of truthful information, including governments, the traditional press, the new media and the citizens at large. The ultimate defense against fake news is the people who have to develop critical thinking and to be vigilant against fake news.
The issue of fake news has created another problem in its wake and that is restoring public trust in the news itself. This is a huge issue that has cropped up since the advent of social media. So there is a big challenge before the news media industry to build public trust and living up to the expectation of news consumers.
In order to restore rebuild public trust, there is need to re-evaluate the way the content strategies is being made, how a story is built, how the news is formulated and how its formatted, and what are the mechanism to distribute the news.
The need of the hour is instead creating fake news content, the focus should be on content generation that that is civically useful. The news outlets should take a fresh look at what they should have that’s valuable to its readers.
For this there is a need to have better understanding of its readers. The best possible way to win over public trust is to be relevant in the new era of information communication technology. It requires a vigorous re-evaluation of the content development and news production. Perhaps that's the only possible way to go forward to tackle the problem of fake news.
As far as India is concerned, two websites; AltNews.in and SMHoaxSlayer are doing a huge service to fight the menace of fake news. However, the task is monumental and all the stakeholders should generate greater amount of resolve to address this issue.
[Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
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