Last Saturday evening, I was hanging out with a few friends, when one shared a WhatsApp forward she had just received. “What a beautiful quote by William Shakespeare,” she said. “‘I cried because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet.’” I replied, “Those are touching words, but they don’t sound at all like Shakespeare.” My three degrees in English Literature could not budge her conviction that Shakespeare had been accurately quoted by the unknown person who had typed out the original message. A short while later, another friend shared what he believed to be CCTV footage of the Pulwama bombing. The video, captured in Iraq in 2007, showed vehicles driving on the right side of sandy roads in a flat landscape, but passed easily for the verdant Kashmir Valley in our group.
The Pulwama terror attack launched a flood of false information, much of it directed towards securing votes for the ruling coalition in the upcoming Lok Sabha election. The BJP has capitalised marvellously on its failure to control violence in Kashmir, even as it warns the Opposition not to politicise the latest outrage.
As I sank into a bout of dejection about fake news being promoted by people who ought to know better, generals and professors of political theory among them, I was surprised to read an article by Manu Joseph titled “A farce called objectivity is dead, and that’s great”.
Objectivity and falsity
Joseph’s piece appeared in a mainstream publication, but ran down the claims of conventional journalism, arguing that professional journalists pretended to be neutral observers while advancing personal biases and agendas. His opening gambit concerned the Rafale fighter:
“Some of you may be surprised to know that despite all the noise surrounding the Rafale aircraft, there is not a shred of evidence yet that its purchase is a financial scam. If this corroborates your conviction and a current of well-being has run through your body, you are on the side of Narendra Modi. If it irritates you, and your mind is searching for a clinching and futile rebuttal, then you are a person who wishes Modi to fail in the general elections. Journalists, too, are such simple people who belong to either of the two distinct camps, but they feel they must pretend to be ‘neutral’, which is a meaningless word to describe any human state.”
Here, as in the article as a whole, Joseph places himself above the fray, while pigeonholing his peers in two mutually hostile, equally deluded camps. His position, however, is self-contradictory. Take his view of Rafale, that, “there is not a shred of evidence yet that its purchase is a financial scam”. We are invited to read this as a factual statement that will expose our own biases. And yet, if it is meant to be factual, it assumes for itself an objectivity that is supposedly unreachable, and therefore undercuts the article’s central premise. On the other hand, if it is meant as a completely random statement endowed with zero truth value, written only as a litmus test for the prejudices of readers, it fails on that score because patently false assertions can draw legitimate objections independent of ideology. For example, my problem with the so-called Shakespeare quote about shoes and legs rested entirely on its false attribution. It would not have hurt my political or ethical beliefs one whit if Shakespeare had actually written those words.
Joseph falls into the trap of making the best the enemy of the good. Most journalists would agree with him that perfect objectivity is impossible. But that is not the same thing as agreeing that every proposition has an identical truth value. Consider the lines, “Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat made a deep impact on Harivansh Rai Bachchan,” and, “Harivansh Rai Bachchan’s Madhushala made a deep impact on Omar Khayyam.” The first is at the very least arguably true, whereas the second is obviously false.
Mainstream journalism versus fake news
Mainstream journalism has evolved systems to weed out completely false statements and to report facts as best as possible. “As best as possible” is often not good enough, and the speed of today’s news cycle frequently pushes inaccuracies onto front pages. There are a hundred legitimate critiques to be made about journalism, but stating that the profession’s established processes are nothing beyond a series of self-serving myths is not one of them.
It is a pity to see Joseph, who has worked for and edited a major Indian periodical, succumb to the confusion of the Donald Trump era. The American president, notoriously, lies almost every time he opens his mouth, while accusing responsible, independent media outlets of publishing fake news. Meanwhile, actual fake news circulates at a dizzying pace, often entirely outside the ambit of journalism, pushed by politically motivated activists. India, a market that has always been reluctant to pay for high-grade journalistic content, is particularly vulnerable to the deluge, which reached an unprecedented volume after the Pulwama attack.
There is no short-term solution to the fake news issue. The two companies that nearly monopolise the dissemination of information in democracies, Google and Facebook, have struggled to deal with it, but so far their combination of human intervention and advanced technology has not worked well. Dozens of diligent fact-checking sites help the cause, but fake fact-checkers also proliferate.
Fake news has always existed. The difference today is that it is spread mainly by gullible consumers, and is therefore far more effective than the propaganda of the past. For this reason, we cannot leave the solution to government regulations and private firms, there has to be individual effort involved. We need to evolve a zero tolerance policy towards fake news, which can only happen once we acknowledge that fake news is a grave problem in itself, and cannot be justified on the grounds that it serves a noble purpose.
Two examples will illustrate what I mean about noble purpose. The first involves an image that appeared on a number of my friends’ news feeds a few months ago, showing an Iraqi man weeping inside the British museum on seeing artefacts stolen from his country. A close look makes it clear that it does not show the British Museum or any European museum. When I pointed this out, the typical response was, “Well, this image may be wrongly labelled, but the Brits did loot Iraq and other nations, so the principle is valid.” Similarly, an acquaintance recently linked to an article about chickens being transported from the US to China for processing and then back to the US for sale. When I posted a Snopes take-down of the news, the reply was that the core idea remained sound because the global economy demonstrated many such carbon-intensive perversions.
The argument in both cases was that since the general proposition was credible, any specific misinformation ought to be overlooked. We must eradicate such excuses. After all, the same argument about general validity can be, and has been, used to justify fake news of cows being illegally slaughtered, or child kidnappings, or ethnic cleansing, among dozens of other subjects. Multiplied hundreds or millions of times, such posts and forwards inflame an already heated discourse, polarise positions further and contribute directly to mob violence and the election of demagogues.
Fake news can never serve the cause of a liberal polity. The motto of the Indian republic, “Satyameva Jayate”, truth alone triumphs, is part of a line from the Mundaka Upanishad, which goes, “satyameva jayate nānṛtaṃ”, truth alone triumphs, not falsehood. We cannot guarantee that truth will triumph, for there is no perfect objectivity or singular truth. We can, however, strive to fulfil the last part of the adage: not falsehood.