Fake news

Arrest of Postcard News co-founder shines a light on India’s ‘fake news’ problem

BJP leaders greeted the news by pointing fingers at Siddaramaiah’s government and demanding Mahesh Vikram Hegde’s release.

On Thursday, the Bengaluru police arrested the co-founder of Right Wing publication Postcard News for allegedly spreading false information about a Jain monk who had been injured in an accident. Mahesh Vikram Hegde was charged with promoting enmity between different groups, deliberately insulting religious beliefs, and criminal conspiracy, under relevant sections of the Indian Penal Code.

In a social media post on March 18, which was also shared by Postcard News’ Facebook page, Hegde claimed that a Jain monk from Karnataka had been assaulted by a Muslim youth. “No one is safe in Siddaramaiah’s Karnataka,” said the now-deleted tweet. However, the police said that the monk, Mayank Sagar, had been hurt in a minor accident.

In a press release, the Bengaluru police said that Hegde published the false report despite knowing that the monk had been injured in a road accident and with the intent to promote enmity between different groups and bring a bad name to the state government.

The news about the Jain monk is just the latest in Postcard News’ long history of publishing incendiary and divisive articles, that were later shown to be “fake” or dubious, usually targetting minority communities, Congress-led state governments and mainstream media. This chequered track record has been well documented by websites like AltNews and BoomLive who, among a clutch of others, have been working to counter the onslaught of false reports that has risen after the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

Here’s a non-exhaustive list of some of the dubious claims made by the website in recent months:

  • In August 2016, the website parroted a rumour that seemed to have originated on Twitter: that journalist Barkha Dutt had hitched a ride with Zakir Rashid Bhatt alias Zakir Musa, who was then the commander of the terrorist group Hizbul Mujahideen. This came after Dutt posted a picture of her riding pillion with an unidentified man while she was reporting from Kashmir. The journalist claimed that the man gave her a lift after her car broke down, leaving her stranded as curfew had been imposed in parts of the Valley . The website, along with several other fake news publications, juxtaposed a grainy image of Dutt’s rider and a photograph of Musa, declaring a match. The resemblance, however, was tenuous at best. Moreover, as AltNews pointed out, for Musa, a wanted terrorist, to come out of his hideout, reach a town with police presence and curfew and give a lift to a journalist who would subsequently tweet about it for the world to see was highly improbable.  
  • In May 2017, Postcard News published a report claiming that West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s government planned to introduce a separate engineering entrance exam for minority students. The article opened with: “West Bengal will soon turn out to be another Pakistan. Probably that is what Mamata Banerjee is planning to do. Her appeasement politics is reaching the pinnacle which is almost destroying the state of West Bengal. AltNews debunked the report, pointing out that the news dated back to 2014 and was based on a Supreme Court directive. Contrary to Postcard’s implication, it was not an attempt at minority appeasement.
  • On February 5 this year, the propaganda website claimedthat Christian groups in Tamil Nadu had entered the Kaliyar Kovil and Sivagami temples in Madurai and staked claim on the property. The website insinuated that this was a plan by Christian missionaries to convert Hindu temples to churches. The story had not quoted any official sources. However, BoomLive spoke to the police and a local reporter, who told the publication that a procession organised by a local church had passed the streets near the temples, but no one had entered the premises. The procession was an annual event. A police officer, on record, told the publication that local activists had started objecting to the procession in recent years and had vandalised a local church this year in protest.

A look at Hegde’s Twitter profile reveals a similar commitment to spreading anti-minority and anti-government sentiment as well as a distinct pro-Modi bias.

One would think that the Bharatiya Janata Party would take pains to, at least publicly, distance itself from these publications that toe their ideological line but occupy morally and ethically shaky territory. But the prime minister in fact follows Hegde on Twitter. And, as this AltNews report points out, BJP leaders, supporters and official Twitter handles regularly share Postcard News stories even though the publication has repeatedly been called out for unverified reportage that has often been shown to be false.

This so-far tacit support came out in the open after Hegde’s arrest on Thursday, when several BJP members, including Union Minister Anantkumar Hegde, tweeted with the hashtag “Release Mahesh Hegde”. On the other hand, detractors have also insinuated that the arrest was politically motivated, given that the Karnataka government is led by the Congress.

Postcard News, meanwhile, greeted word of the arrest with a story, ostensibly by a reader named Rati Hegde, explaining the importance of the publication to India’s news landscape. The website in the dock for spreading false information pointed figures at the mainstream media’s coverage, alleging that it conceals more than it reveals. “It was to counter such narratives and to make the Hindus aware of the ‘Eco-system’ of the Congress involving the ‘Lutyens Club’ journalists, that the Right Wing portals made an entry,” the piece read.

“They were mostly driven by Nationalists, not journalists. They used simple language while reporting, even making mistakes in Grammar, simply because most of the contributors were not ‘professional’ journalists, but those who loved their country, their culture & desperately wanted a change in the political leadership of the country.”

India’s fake news problem

Mahesh Hegde’s arrest is a rare example of official action against the spread of rumours, misinformation and disinformation in India, but this is only the tip of the iceberg.

The personality-cult politics of Modi’s BJP, the coinciding smartphone and internet penetration in India and the saffron party’s brute majority at the Centre has meant that the fake news phenomenon has grown rapidly in the years since the party came to power. This obfuscation happens in various forms. There are websites like Postcard News and Hindutva.info that have repeatedly been called out for spreading fake news. Then, there are numerous publications with a distinct Right-Wing bias that are in the business of news, but lack journalistic rigour and do not qualify as mainstream media. There is also the rumour-mongering through WhatsApp and other messaging services, which are near-impossible to monitor. Crowning the list are mainstream publications and news channels that are increasingly taking a pro-government stance, in the process abandoning objectivity and often spreading falsehood. The prime minister himself has been called out for playing fast and loose with facts.

Such disinformation is not only misleading, divisive and unethical but has also proved fatal. In 2017, seven people were beaten to death in two separate incidents in Jharkhand after WhatsApp messages spread rumours about strangers abducting children in the area.

Moreover, even though its rise has run parallel to the advent of the BJP on the national stage in its second innings, fake news is soon becoming so embedded in India’s information ecosystem that it could flourish no matter who is in charge. Already, fake news websites aimed at discrediting Modi are emerging. A similar phenomenon is unfolding in the West. Far from being a solution, this lie-for-a-lie strategy is only threatening to bury the truth under mounting and contradictory piles of misinformation.

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