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Getting taken in by fake news

Frederick Noronha

We hear so much about it. Donald Trump is constantly screaming against the press he doesn’t like, and dismisses it as “fake news”. But when it strikes home and appears uncannily believably, that’s when it turns scary.

I’ve been fooled too. We feel sheepish once we realise that. But fake news can strike anytime, and at anyone. It is a challenge to understand what is fake news, why it does arise, and who are the cynics who keep spreading it. Many people who circulate fake news do so innocently; they too are the victims. But at least some of those who pass it around do so maliciously, watching the “fun” as someone else gets tricked and fooled. Or, even, actively circulating such “news” with a dubious intent on their mind.

Last week, a retired school-teacher shared a photo with me with a brief caption that said: “Dog meat seized at the Margao railway station”. It looked like a perfectly believable story. There were some officials, standing by light-and-dark blue railway compartments on a station platform. There were even dog-sized carcasses, which were apparently being inspected by officials wearing plastic gloves. Of course, in India, all railway stations tend to look similar. So it’s hard to tell whether a photo is from Margao, Secunderabad or Jammu Tawi. This is especially true if there are no signboards in the
image.

One’s first thought was to check if this photo had been published earlier. Google, and some other sites like TinyEye.com, offer something called a ‘reverse image search’. Using this online tool, you can find out where else a photo has been used earlier online, and similar images to the one you have on hand.

It turns out that the “dog meat seized at Margao” photo had earlier shown up with a similar report from Egmore station. The same team of officials were seen inspecting similar carcasses there. Even more surprising, one of the officials in a blue checked shirt in “Margao”, was wearing the exact same clothing while he was seizing “dog meat” at Egmore station in Chennai.

Coincidences happen. So does fake news!

A little more googling showed that the reports about 1100 kilograms of “dog meat” seized in Chennai was actually wrong. It was mutton! Mainstream news outlets (IndiaTimes, November 22, 2018) had reported that there had been widespread social criticism over the “dog meat” issue, but the meat actually turned out to be mutton after samples were tested at the Madras Veterinary College. This goes to show not only our warped sense of what is important, but also the cynicism of a few who try to keep such “news” on the agenda.

It’s not always this easy to detect fake news. The stories are usually chosen in a way that we tend to believe them. Only well after you forward some forward-you-received, does it hit home that there has been a whole lot manipulation in creating this “news”.

Fresh as one was from this encounter, I thought I was prepared for another social media forward, when it came my way. This time it was a news story about `35 lakh worth of gold ornaments being stolen by a young boy, maybe eight to ten years old, from a prominent social club in Miramar.

Together with this story, there was a video showing the boy surveying the bag of ornaments, which was temporarily left unattended. After a while, the lad lifts the bag, struggles with its weight, but manages to make off with it nonetheless. Of course, in a video or photo close-up, it’s hard to properly identify a venue. Egmore railway station gets converted into Margao. This particular wedding recording had people describing the incident in Konkani, a voice overlay can be added to just about any video. So one was skeptical.

After I dismissed it as some more ‘fake’ news, the next thing that happened was that social media messages were doing the rounds praising the police for having solved this crime. The “wedding robbers gang” was caught in Gujarat, online reports said. Later on, while this story didn’t get wide coverage, it did get mentioned in a section of the press locally.

Of course, social media has no monopoly over fake news, even if it has a head-start in its ability to spread it. Word of mouth and the traditional media can also be used to spread mob violence. This is not an entirely new phenomenon, though we might be sitting up to take note of it only now.

Fake news has played a growing role in elections as well. At times, even quarters close to the government can give a story a spin, in the direction that favours them. The reporting over Kashmir recently is a case in point.

Indian sites like the Ahmedabad-based AltNews.in, started by software engineer Pratik Sinha, has been doing a laudable job in keeping check on fake news. But, in keeping with today’s trend, the side of the story which we don’t like is clouded by claims, counter-claims and allegations. So, on the one hand Sinha’s AltNews.in has reported having faced threats and demands that he stop producing such counter-fake news content. On the other hand, it has faced unsigned allegations that the “left-wing website altnews is just a blog launched for political purposes in India, with an eye on [the then] upcoming Indian general elections in 2019.”

From Goa, one unusual case saw undisguised fake news being spread around 2008, to newspapers nationwide. It was the story about a suspected Nazi being arrested while he was trying to sell an antique piano. After many newspapers got taken in, the fake news was revealed as a “super prank” to show how lax newspapers can often be when it comes to fact-checking.

Journalists these days tend to complain about the social media being on their tail, and interrogating them on everything they write. Well, the news is that social media is not a new development, but has been around for at least a quarter of a century, earlier as email, then in its other forms. In the past, the media seemed to take the approach that it could somehow ignore the social media. Today, more realise that it won’t go away. And, besides, it can be used or misused in any which way.

Of course, this should not be an excuse for the authorities to curb free speech, which comes at a great price, but which is important nonetheless. On the other hand, it is a wake-up call to each of us to understand that like a sharp knife, social media too can be used to wreak havoc, to cook food, or even to operate and heal.

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