India’s 2014 general elections shot into the public space many unlikely characters that would have otherwise been languishing in anonymity. One of these was Mahesh Vikram Hegde, who has recently been arrested and booked under Sections 120B, 153A and 295A of the Indian Penal Code. For the last five years, Postcard News has been publishing on its online portal what passes as “news” verging on the bizarre and absurd, so much so that anyone not familiar with the naiveté and gullibility of India’s new class of “bhakts” would easily dismiss as spoof, on the lines of The Onion or the Mad Magazine.
The difference being that whereas The Onion and Mad Magazine declare themselves to be satirical journals, Postcard News and Postcard Team are motivated and serious about duping the public about their concoctions, passing them off as real events. Therein lies the rub.
"Fake news is a bad thing, but according to my understanding, the Ministry of Truth is also bad," Estonia's Andrus Ansip, the EU commissioner for the digital single market, had said in January 2017, referring to the ministry responsible for the slogans and falsehoods in George Orwell's dystopian novel 1984.
The internet and social media is not unfamiliar to spoofs and memes, the latter a variation of the more classical cartoon, accorded a bonafide place in journalism since the late 19th century. Cartoons, memes and satirical articles are meant to provoke thought and skepticism, critique and genuflection in the reader, and often make use of reductio ad absurdum as a tool to achieve these ends.
That they have often drawn the ire of governments throughout the world and been clamped down upon, only makes them more significant and potent as weapons of resistance and change. But what about news written with a specific slant for a specific audience, such as the content on hyperpartisan websites and their associated Facebook pages, stories that frequently demonise the other side's point of view, often at the expense of facts?
The challenge of fake news starts with its definition; it can mean very different things depending on who is speaking and what the context is. Hegde's arrest came on the heels of his tweet on March 19 when a Jain monk was involved in an accident. Postcard News had reported that Upadhyaya Mayank Sagar Ji Maharaj was mown down by a drunk biker, who was Muslim.
"Very sad news, yesterday in Karnataka Jain muni attacked by Muslim youth. No one is safe in Siddaramaiah's Karnataka," Hegde tweeted and this was retweeted multiple times.
The fact that he mentioned the CM’s name may have prompted the arrest since Postcard News has been operating under the state government’s nose with impunity for the past several years.
Incidentally, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is among those who follow Mr Hegde on Twitter, which comes as no surprised since the PM has a reputation of following sordid trolls on online social media platforms who sing chalisas of praise to him, and rush forward to defend him like mother hens whenever they detect a threat to his image.
Mahesh Hegde might well join the present luminaries of partisan journalism who are the feathers in the Sangh Parivar’s cap. Photo: Facebook
Much of Postcard News’ popularity comes from the average Indian’s lack of maturity on how to filter media noise and triangulate multiple sources. More often than not his/her decision is emotion driven and fiercely partisan. When we characterise one media report as “true” and another as “fake”, or insist on a distinction between “actual” facts and “alternative” (that is, false) facts, we are relying on Enlightenment concepts of reason, objective truth and warranting evidence.
In academia, these concepts have been controversial, and in some quarters explicitly rejected, for decades. Significant and influential schools of academic inquiry rely, in varying degrees, on the belief that reality is socially constructed and that appeals to ‘objective truth’ are to be understood as hegemonic strategies designed to preserve the privilege of those in power.
Other schools of academic thought grant that objective reality does exist, but argue that it is impossible to know it objectively – that our perceptions and biases impose filters on our perception of reality such that, in practice, there is no such thing as objectivity; there exist only billions of different subjectivities.
From this perspective, the pure truth may indeed be out there, but no one can be relied upon as an authoritative witness of it.
For obvious reasons, the more one accepts either of these propositions – that the concept of objective truth is merely a political tool, or that objective truth is effectively unknowable – the more challenging it is to stand on behalf of the “reality-based community” as a defender of “real facts” as opposed to fake news or alternative facts.
From either of these perspectives, politicians and others who put forth “counterfactual” accounts of the world around them are doing nothing different from what all of us inescapably do: wielding what power they have to construct a reality that promotes their interests. When we oppose their framing of reality, we are not defending objective truth, but rather, simply defending our own interests and prerogatives.
An analysis by Buzzfeed, a US news site, conducted in November 2016 found that during the final months of the US presidential campaign, fake news stories outperformed real news on social media, drawing more shares and engagement than news content from respected mainstream media. Similarly, a recent Pew Research Centre Survey suggested that almost a quarter of American adults have shared fake news, knowingly or unknowingly.
The following example will illustrate the impact fake news has on the gullible and how menacing the results can be. About a week before the United States presidential election, someone posted on Twitter that Hillary Clinton was at the center of a pedophilia ring. The rumor spread through social media, and a right-wing talk show host named Alex Jones repeatedly stated that she was involved in child abuse and that her campaign chairman, John Podesta, took part in satanic rituals.
In a YouTube video (since removed), Jones referred to “all the children Hillary Clinton has personally murdered and chopped up and raped.” The video, posted four days before the election, was watched more than 4,00,000 times.
Emails released by WikiLeaks showed that Podesta sometimes dined at a Washington pizza restaurant called Comet Ping Pong. The story was also retweeted by General Michael Flynn, who was, at the time, soon to be US president Donald Trump’s national security adviser. And Edgar Welch, a Christian with Bible verses tattooed on his back, was one of Jones’ listeners. On December 4, he drove 560km from his home in North Carolina to Comet Ping Pong, armed with an assault rifle, a revolver and a knife. He allowed staff and guests to leave while he searched for the enslaved children supposedly hidden in tunnels. He fired his rifle once, to open a locked door. After finding no children, he surrendered to the police. Things could have ended in a far ghastlier manner.
In the Indian context, and in the current scenario, polarised as we have become as a society, in the landscape of schisms and divides running across religions, castes and political affiliations, a fake news factory is what a fuse is to a tinderbox. As soon as he was arrested Hegde received vehement support from BJP MPs and MLAs, including Union minister from Karnataka, Anantkumar Hegde, who came out with indignant statements about how “democracy” and “free speech” was being trampled.
What else does one expect except a closing of the ranks of those who have been the greatest beneficiaries of deliberate misinformation, (albeit crude and laughable) and invested as a collective in the dissemination of such malicious rumor mongering? Pratik Sinha, the founder of Alt News, who has been debunking Postcard News and other such fake news mills ever since its inception, calls this the “Right Wing ecosystem” in one of his articles.
One recalls how, in an unprecedented deployment of social media strength in March 2017, the BJP had set up a mammoth IT cell on Pandit Panth Marg for the Delhi civic polls with a team of 80,000 members, operating from 272 wards and three IT rooms under the guidance of 280 social media experts.
And, recently, PM Modi exhorted his BJP MPs to gather at least three lakh “genuine likes”, a clear admission of the fake profiles and handles that they have flooded the Net with in the last five years. It is impossible to see PostCard News in isolation from this mammoth social media thrust of a party that believes in winning elections by any method, foul or fair.
Exactly to what extent a loyal soldier of the Sangh Parivar like Mahesh Vikram Hegde will be punished is anybody’s guess. Considering our plummeting standards he might well join the present luminaries of partisan journalism who are the feathers in the Sangh Parivar’s cap, in the not too distant future.
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