NEW DELHI • India has been virtually overrun by a fake news epidemic in the last few years, with the content ranging from the absurd to the ridiculous to the sinister, and the consequences assuming tragic proportions at times.
Unverified websites, social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, and WhatsApp messages are the potent tools to disseminate such news.
The preponderance of fake news can largely be attributed to the telecoms revolution in this country of 1.2 billion people that has equipped most Indians, even in rural and remote parts of the country, with cellphones.
Increasingly, fake news has assumed a communal dimension and is being used to polarise people along religious lines.
The Rohingya Muslims fleeing alleged persecution in Myanmar have become victims of fake news in India. Some Twitter accounts have images purportedly showing the Rohingya persecuting Hindus in Rakhine province, but alert fact checkers have called out these images for the fakes they are.
A fake news article said noted writer Arundhati Roy, who is a sharp critic of the government's Kashmir policy, had told a Pakistani newspaper that 70 lakh (seven million) Indian Army soldiers cannot beat the "azadi (freedom) gang" in Kashmir.
This triggered immediate outrage among "nationalist" news channels and Bharatiya Janata Party supporters. It was later discovered to be fake news, as Ms Roy had not visited Kashmir recently or spoken to any Pakistani newspaper.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's demonetisation drive last November, which scrapped high-value currency notes, led to a bizarre rumour, again courtesy of WhatsApp messages, about nano Global Positioning System chips being embedded in the new 2,000-rupee notes issued by the central bank.
As it turned out, the claim was false and the Reserve Bank of India had to issue a clarification.
The Indian government has yet to formulate a policy to tackle the exponential growth in fake news.
When there is unrest or communal tension, the knee-jerk reaction is usually to temporarily ban Internet services in the affected areas. This has not really proved to be an effective counter.
There are, however, some valiant warriors taking on the scourge of fake news head-on.
Alt News, helmed by Mr Pratik Sinha, is one such website that busts fake news claims with regularity.
In a country where vast swathes of the population are illiterate, spreading disinformation is, not surprisingly, quite easy. Only the swift and even spread of education will solve this problem...
A video purportedly showing a Marwari (Hindu) woman being attacked by a mob of Muslim men because she refused to wear a burqa despite marrying a Muslim was exposed as a two-year-old video of an attack on a suspected teenage burglar in Guatemala.
In another case, an image widely circulated last month was purportedly of a nine-year-old pregnant Rohingya girl at a United Nations clinic. It turned out that the picture was of Sandy, a 12-year-old Brazilian girl suffering from various health conditions that caused an enlarged belly.
SMHoaxSlayer is another fake news checker run by Mr Pankaj Jain.
A video he received claiming to show the beheading of Indian soldiers with chainsaws in Pakistan was found to be that of a Mexican gang war from 2011.
In a country where vast swathes of the population are illiterate, spreading disinformation is, not surprisingly, quite easy.
Only the swift and even spread of education will solve this problem, as will concerted efforts by the government and civil society to educate people about the perils of fake news.
THE STATESMAN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 29, 2017, with the headline 'Cellphone revolution, illiteracy fan spread of disinformation'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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