In August 2019, police in Mirzapur, Uttar Pradesh decided to open an investigation into a local journalist, Pawan Jaiswal, all because he had exposed a government school for feeding its children salt and a chapati as a mid-day meal. This meal was well below the government’s minimum nutrition standards. But the state didn’t care about the information that was revealed, it didn’t care to respond with alarm to the food that was being fed to these young children. Instead of taking action against the school authorities, the Uttar Pradesh government felt the journalist was at fault for making the government look bad, especially on video that could be circulated so widely now online. And so, it decided to charge him with cheating, using false evidence and conspiracy. The Uttar Pradesh government essentially accused him of reporting their version of fake news.
Barely two weeks after this incident, the same state government booked journalists Ashish Tomar, Shakil Ahmed and three others who tried to report on caste discrimination in the city of Bijnor. Discrediting journalists when the story doesn’t suit those in power, by accusing them of peddling “fake news” has become par for course across the world. Populist leaders would like us to believe that news they don’t like, or news they want to deny, is fake, simply because it is critical of them and their policies. These are just two cases in point, but the world is littered with such examples.
YouTube and Twitter took down several videos and posts that part of China’s state propaganda and information wars against the Hong Kong protests aimed to the discredit news stories emerging from there in September last year. Earlier in 2019, an Indian Parliamentary committee led by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party asked Twitter to explain a “liberal” bias, accusing it of only targeting right wing voices as they blocked and took down abusive accounts.
So when we see politicians and world leaders call stories like Pawan Jaiswal’s “fake news”, the terminology itself stands discredited. Instead, a bigger, deeper danger confronts us – what is in essence the real threat of “fake news” – misinformation, propaganda and hate speech propagated by state machineries and co-opted media voices. Falsehoods, rumours, real news disaggregated and put back together with the aim of feeding fear and diverting public attention from accountability –this kind of misinformation is all geared to stop journalists from doing their job. It is geared to sow hate division amongst the people.
News in digital times
We can argue that fake news is as old as time and we would be right. It has been around since news became a concept 500 years ago with the invention of the printing press in the 1400s. Rumors in Italy in the 16th century , for example, about Jewish people drinking children’s blood circulated on printed pamphlets in Italy. Printing technology gave the rumor legitimacy. Today, those rumors are considered the precursor to anti-Semitism in the world. Like the printing press’s disruptive technology, broadcast technologies have also been misused to spread hate – most visibly in Rwanda, where they pitted the Hutus and Tutsis against each other and exhorted violence.
In 1964, Marshall McLuhan burst on to the intellectual scene by defining the media as an extension of ourselves. The phone extends our voice, the TV extends our eyes and ears, the computer extends our brain, and electronic media overall extends our central nervous system. This extension of technology, McLuhan argued can allow us to detach ourselves from the world around us. If we think about it, in an era of social media, of trolls and online abuse, the keyboard has placed distance between the abuser and the victim. That distance has empowered people to speak in the most hateful ways – something that face-to-face interaction censures and discourages. Today, just as computing technology gives us access to all sorts of news and information at the click of a button it also spreads opinion, propaganda and unverified information that masquerades as news quicker than anyone could have ever imagined with more damaging consequences that anyone could have imagined.
In 2018, a spate of deaths by lynching that were the result of rumors about child kidnappers in India forced the Indian public to sit up and take a hard look at just how we were becoming part of this rumor factory. These deaths finally forced the platform, WhatsApp, to restrict our ability to forward messages without a second thought and realise, through identifiable markers that what we get isn’t always an original, fresh piece of information.
In 2014, the World Economic Forum called misinformation one of the ten greatest perils confronting society. It sows the seeds of hate, waters them and harvests them. Think of these numbers – WhatsApp, which is accused of being used to disseminate rumor and whip up hysteria, has 400 million users in India alone. Facebook has 2.5 billion monthly active users around the world. How often does it shock us to read comments from some of these users below the most innocuous posts? Politics, gender rights, festivals, food – just about anything can spark off a verbal war about choices and biases.
Digital platforms have brought yellow journalism back to the fore. For one, algorithms that create news feeds and compilations have no regard for accuracy and objectivity. Content moderation tools need to work in tandem with human intervention. At the same time, the digital news trend has decimated the journalistic force – measured in both money and manpower – of the traditional free press. The advertising-based business model that supported journalism all these years has collapsed, platforms like Google and Facebook have become the most powerful news disseminators in history.
Speed and time have become compressed in our hyperconnected world and it has become next to impossible to reconcile the need for speed with the need to verify information that we either get or pass along. Technology serves not only to amplify disinformation and hate, but also creates the scope for its automated spread through bots that are learning to mimic human behavior and imitate legitimate users. This sort of technology has no use for borders, so people and machines in Ukraine can influence public opinion in America, Russian agencies can interfere with the US electoral process. And as the Cambridge Analytica scandal showed us, specific audiences that could be influenced were targetted. The manufactured information they received disguised as news confirmed their anxieties and biases.
Hate as political tool
In India, propaganda and disinformation is being used constantly to discredit political leaders, and political legacies inimical to the government. Pictures of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru being affectionate and social with women friends, or family; or lighting a cigarette, were shared by the head of BJP’s IT cell accusing him of being a womaniser with westernised values; and in turn rally political support for the BJP’s current leadership, projected as one that upholds/respects “traditional values.”
This is all profitable – the flow of fabricated stories, rearranged half-truths and decontextualised facts has corroded trust in the media. Worse, it co-opted some in the mainstream media via unscrupulous politicians and media managers looking at a profitable bottom lines.
In fact, journalists in Rwanda stood trial at a United Nations court – accused of inciting genocide of 800,000 people by Hutu extremists. But the legitimacy we as readers and viewers get from text, sound and images, taken out of context, however incorrectly projected, is hard to undo. Today, newsrooms around the world are prioritising the role of fact checkers precisely to call out this sort of propaganda.
But peddlers of propaganda and disinformaton have no real reputation to maintain, no incentive to stay honest. Their concern is limited to reach. And they thrive on anonymity. Automation allows them to be here today, on to another story tomorrow. Their campaigns seek to destroy what exists, what is built. They are almost messianic – mobilising to raze what is, with the promise of what is to be – of a phoenix rising from the ashes.
This is why conversations about the health of our democracies converge naturally around the threat from misinformation and the role its manipulators play in blurring the lines between news and opinion, rumor and fact. Misinformation is a key part of hate campaigns.
Hate for political gain.
Troll armies – both, human and automated, carry out concerted campaigns – especially against religious or caste minorities and refugees – creating enemies out of ordinary people trying to live their lives. These campaigns prey on the most basic human emotions – of fear and anger. Anger against corruption or unemployment or reservations. Anger against real or perceived economic and social privilege, for example. And fear – fear of terrorism and refugees being a threat to security. The goal of disinformation is to divide and polarise society, make us less tolerant, believe that another group is worse than we are.
Hate and polarisation need an enemy, and they need fuel. In India, both are dutifully provided by politicians who harness anger and resentment with populist rhetoric. Politicians who confirm existing biases against minorities and reinforce perceptions about the targets of their hate. These campaigns disrupt beliefs in fundamental basic principles like freedom of speech, the right to life and liberty, to privacy, the right to have different opinions.
They thrive on the chaos they create – forcing us, the citizens to conform to binary identities –national or anti-national, globalist or patriot, Hindu or Muslim. Political groups selectively mobilise genuine devotion or religious emotion in order to manufacture both, offense and a sense of being offended – Hate spin, as media theorist Cherian George calls it. They create an atmosphere of mistrust. And suddenly we don’t know who or what to believe, our own convictions of right and wrong are tested.
The wedges they drive are filled by populist politicians quickly who claim they speak on behalf of the disenfranchised, when all they really want is to hold on to power. An authoritarian leader who fashions himself both as kindred underling and as a demagogic messiah to the public uses a fractured polity to his advantage. And social media gives hate and division much need oxygen. Divisive politicians use the media to foment prejudice, create confusion and celebrate ignorance.
Vitiated, ideologically polarised and aggressive politics is fast becoming a cauldron of victimhood and rage. Its objective is met when the support base is widened, a divisive narrative is created, and people are mobilised around a political agenda. The binaries are challenging our definitions of liberal democracy, of identities and nationalism. The success of propaganda and hate speech that fuels populism lies in a careful calculation of the use of state power, the manipulation of public sentiment, the rhetoric of populist politics and the influence of the media.
Liberalism that requires checks and balances and limited governance is trumped by politicians who want us to believe the state is in mortal danger. Misinformation is a common strategy of populist demagogues who try to subvert people’s trust in verifiable facts and cultivate cynicism.
Our way out
As the crucible of hate speech bubbles over, space for civil debate in the public sphere has yielded to coarse, abusive conversations, fueled by manufactured outrage in TV studios. Electoral contests or policy debates are no longer based on reason but on personal charisma and tribal loyalties.
The question we need to ask ourselves is whether we can lay all the blame at technology’s door? If we do that, we open up the possibility of authoritarian governments and companies driven by profit – to try and regulate our responses.
That is a slippery slope.
What we can and must do instead is identify, report, counter each time we see something abusive or hateful. We must push platforms to act. We must ensure governments don’t misuse calls for regulation to silence critics.
This is a fine balancing act, but one that can only work if we the public invest in our right to accurate information. So, it is really up to us to recognise now that we are just pawns on a political chessboard. Should we allow malign actors, divisive politicians or automated technologies to take over our thought process, our societal obligations? Does the keyboard replace all our interactions and determine our behaviour?
Technology is making is numb, the absence of human contact has an overwhelming impact on basic values – the respect for rights and freedoms, plurality, intellectual pursuits. And most importantly, it is impacting our ability to empathise with groups targeted by this violent discourse – refugees and immigrants fleeing violence or poverty in detention centres across the world, children separated from their parents, families bereft as the main breadwinner is killed by rampaging mobs – all justified as retribution for perceived, past injustices.
There are examples of suffering all around us. But can we re-center ourselves and be empathetic to the suffering of those at the receiving end of this violence today? Can we initiate truth and reconciliation amongst people so that we can overcome this polarising hatred?
Instead of weaponising stereotypes or past pain and injustice, instead of retreating into nativist, tribal identities fueled by propaganda and misinformation, can we reclaim empathy as an antidote to hate?
Can we ensure we think before we share? And prevent conspiracies from spreading? Can we educate our young? Can we tell them from the minute they have a smartphone in their hands what responsible behavior online is all about? High levels of education from an early age is proving to be one of the most effective antidotes to misinformation and hate in countries like Finland – can we learn from their lessons?
The media is considered democracy’s fourth pillar. It creates awareness about our environments, bears witness to our triumphs and to our pain, it is meant to hold power accountable. For one co-opted journalist or media manager, there are many more rededicating themselves every day to ethical, factual reporting each morning. These are committed journalists putting their life and liberty on the line to bring us stories that no one wants us to read or see.
Journalists who exposed Cambridge Analytica’s influence operations did the public a service and made both governments and platforms more accountable. Journalists like Pawan Jaiswal who exposed government schools for not doing what they were mandated to do open our eyes to the everyday injustices of false political promises around us. It will take a collective of stories from good old-fashioned journalists, and a public that seeks to build bridges rather than expand gulfs between communities to turn the tide on hate and pull us out of the abyss that today’s propaganda has led us into.
This article first appeared on Maya Mirchandani’s blog.