Sunday , 22 July 2018

A Historical Perspective On Fake News


TWENTY-TWO people have been lynched in the country in the last two months because of rumours spread on social media. It has naturally raised concerns about fake news being dished out with impunity.  The Union government has expressed solicitude over the grave threat posed by it, but it does not have much leeway though Section 69 added to the Information Technology Act in 2008 empowers it to intercept, monitor or decrypt any information through any computer resource. It can be done in the interest of the sovereignty or integrity of India, the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognisable offence.

Curbs on Internet

All these grounds figure in Article 19(2) of the Constitution of India for curbing the right to the freedom of speech. Under Section 69A of the IT (Procedure & Safeguards for Blocking for Access of Information by Public) Rules 2009, the Centre can issue directions to block an Internet site. An executive route was opened for blocking offensive sites without going to the court. The Supreme Court upheld this section in May 2015 but clarified that reasons for blocking have to be recorded in writing which would be subject to judicial scrutiny. The government blocked 857 porn sites in 2015 but the ban had to be revoked in three-four days. So far as rumour mongering by dissemination of fake news is concerned, the government can act in the name of public order but a whole site cannot be blocked as all messages are not fake or offensive. Most of the messages are good, genuine and educative.

The question is: how far this hand-wringing over distortion of facts as a new phenomenon is true?  The problem is as old as the hills. We find its glaring example in the Mahabharata. The Pandavas knew that they would not win the war so long as Dronacharya was the commander of the Kauravas’ army. So, when Bhima killed an elephant called Aswatthama, the Pandavas, in order to disturb Drona, shouted, “Aswatthama hatau.” (Aswatthama is dead.) Drona thought that they were referring to his namesake son. Not namby-pamby, Drona refused to believe it and decided to check with Dharmaraj Yudhishthira who had never lied. Dharamaraj hesitated but impelled by Lord Krishna, he uttered the half-truth, “Yes, Aswatthama is dead. Maybe an elephant, maybe a man.” Drona did not hear the full sentence in the din, and only heard that Aswatthama was dead. A distraught father lowered his weapons and wept, and was killed by Dhristadyumna on Krishna’s bidding. This was deception, not truth. Kenopanishad defines truth: “Amayita satyam iti.” (Non-deception is what truth is.) It further says, “Akautilyam wa manah kayanaam.” (The non-distortion of speech, body and mind.) So, the Pandavas were guilty of spreading fake news.

But there may be genuine dilemma which may make sifting the wheat from the chaff difficult. Though distortion is always deliberate, deception is not so. One is deceived not out of one’s own volition. What appears as a snake may seem a piece of rope when seen from close quarters but may ultimately turn out to be a streak of coal tar.

“Postmodernism” has its genesis in the rejection of grand narratives, ideologies and various tenets of Enlightenment rationality, which presupposed the existence of objective reality and absolute truth.  It marked the end of universal theories or universal truth. Philosophers like George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Karl Marx, and Max Weber propounded theories which were not region or time specific.

Of manufactured nod

However, there may be a real confusion in a few cases but not every time. Sometimes truth is camouflaged to mislead. Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky in their book ‘Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media’ (1988) have shown that mass media, instead of upholding the truth and justice, defend the economic, social and political agendas of privileged groups. Consent is manufactured with the help of mass media which spread misinformation and disinformation.

The term “the manufacture of consent” was first used by Walter Lippmann in his book ‘Public Opinion’ (1922). Lippmann had the same complaint that facts are never presented accurately and completely but are often arranged to portray a certain, subjective interpretation of an event to suit private needs. So, even around a century back, the same concern is expressed.

In fact, the whole world seems to be agitated over the dangers of fake news. Social media website Twitter has closed 70 million fake accounts which were being used for trolls and rumour mongering. It told the American Congress how the 2016 US presidential election was sought to be influenced by Russia through fake accounts. Around 50,000 fake accounts are being identified and closed every day. In April last, Facebook’s chief executive Mark Zuckerberg admitted that up to 87 million Facebook users in Britain might have had their personal data accessed by Cambridge Analytica, a London-based political consulting company. A whistleblower has laid bare commercial nexus between Analytica and American politicians in predicting and influencing voting preferences, A company, Global Science Research, used a personality app, with the consent of Facebook, ostensibly for some academic purpose, as it claimed, and harvested data of millions of Facebook subscribers who used this app. Its claim of doing some academic research was humbug as it sold the data to Analytica which was working for Donald Trump’s presidential election.

It has also come to light that Indian political parties also approached Analytica for reaping political dividends. Its former chief executive Alexander Nix, now under suspension, has said that his company is used to ‘operating through different vehicles in the shadows’. This is a big shocker which clearly indicates that some bigger operation is going on the sly.

Truth and public opinion

The selection of “post-truth” as the international word of 2016 by the Oxford Dictionary spawned a fierce debate on the role of truth in building public opinion and news reporting. The dictionary defines it as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” It is flabbergasting that the dictionary selected this term only because of the contentious Brexit referendum and an equally divisive US presidential election. The advent of Donald Trump as the US President has definitely befuddled many and given further fillip to the debate. He is accused of promoting falsehoods without qualms and levelling accusations without any substantiation. He is said to have written in praise of strategic falsehood and “truthful hyperbole” as a businessman. According to Collins Dictionary, fake news is the word of 2017. Disdain for the truth is not new. Governments of different countries of whatever hue have been spreading lies to fortify their own interests. People must be educated that there is no gatekeeper in the social media and so its content must not be accepted at the face value.


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