Fake news was not a problem for the Bharatiya Janata Party – until it started coming from the other side. At a function on Monday, Home Minister Rajnath Singh exhorted jawans not to trust unverified information that is going around on WhatsApp because it may come from anti-social elements hoping to “foment trouble”. This comes after Bharatiya Janata Party President Amit Shah on Sunday urged the youth of Gujarat not to believe propaganda that was being shared on social media about his party.
The decision of BJP president and India’s home minister to add their voices to a fight against fake news is heartening. The spread of mobile technology and especially applications like Facebook and WhatsApp have made it easier than ever before for material aimed at whipping up sentiments to be circulated, even if there is no truth to it. A carefully crafted piece of fake news is usually aimed at reinforcing already existing beliefs.
Fake news is a global problem and India has plenty of it, from old stories being passed of as new outrages on WhatsApp to TV channels airing doctored videos. This new element of virality, where a bit of fake news can spread through a community like wildfire, has the potential to be deadly – especially at a time when the state has been unable or unwilling to crack down on incidents like mob lynchings.
It is in the interests of a well-meaning administration to crack down on fake news. Governments abroad have actively taken a role or encouraged the media to increase their fact-checking and hoax-debunking efforts. Earlier this month, for instance, in an effort to prevent the spread of fake news, the United States of America’s Federal Emergency Management Agency even put together a rumour control page as several massive storms were about to hit the country.
In light of this, both Singh and Shah’s remarks might seem encouraging. While Shah seemed more concerned about the damage to his party from an opponent, Singh struck the right note, calling on Indians to be sceptical about the kinds of messages they may receive on WhatsApp.
But while public calls to be more careful about fake news are useful, both Singh and Shah could do much more to combat the problem by starting closer to home: within the BJP. The saffron party was an early pioneer when it came to using the internet for organising and building political awareness. But it has also been at the forefront of the fake news phenomenon, with top party leaders and ministers occasionally revealing the kinds of dishonest messages that are much more rampant among the base.
The problem begins at the top, within the BJP’s Information Technology department. The party’s IT Cell head Amit Malviya has frequently been caught spreading fake news. So much so that Sandip Roy in the Huffington Post asked if Malviya is now the BJP’s “biggest liability”. But it pervades the rest of the government as well.
When Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad brazenly says that the government believed in a “right to privacy” despite arguing against it before the Supreme Court, when spokesperson Sambit Patra can dishonestly defame an outgoing vice president of India, when BJP Member of Parliament Paresh Rawal can spread rumours about writer and activist Arundhati Roy, they are all contributing to the fake news economy.
If their only response when being caught it is, at most, deleting, they are doing nothing to stop this scourge. As Altnews has systematically documented, an entire ecosystem has been built up to generate fake news that is then fed into the BJP network and often emerges from the social media accounts of BJP ministers and leaders. Far from being dismantled, this ecosystem – which has also been criticised for helping direct abuse that is often sexist and violent – has been defended by the BJP.
Even as Amit Shah is concerned about Congress propaganda, he may not have much incentive in stopping his party’s own efforts to nurture the fake news industry the BJP has nurtured. Singh, on the other hand, as home minister, has a duty to prevent violence and maintain law and order, which fake news threatens to unsettle. If Singh is genuine about his concerns, he should start by shutting down and making an example of those in his own party who have been shown to share false information.