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Fake News: How prevalent it is and the nation’s response

The advent of the internet brought with it numerous benefits. For instance, communication was made easier and information became more accessible. The world is more connected than ever, however, that has also meant that many have begun misusing this enhanced connectivity by spreading ‘fake news’. The term can roughly be defined as stories created to deliberately misinform or deceive the audience.

Last year, 20 cases of lynching surfaced over a period of just two months, resulting in the death of around 23 people. In one of the cases, rumours were spread in Maharashtra through social media which claimed the existence of a gang which kidnaps children and sells their kidneys. An angry mob mistook men offering biscuits to children as members of the gang and subsequently thrashed them, leading to their deaths.

Another case saw a man lynched in Utter Pradesh. Rumours had been making rounds based on cow slaughtering. A mob, believing the man to have partaken in the slaughter, beat him to death. A video emerged where the mob asked him to confess to his ‘crime’ of slaughtering a cow. 

These cases do not even begin to scratch the surface of how prevalent fake news has become in India. In February this year, A survey by Microsoft showed that internet users in India are more likely to come across fake news than any other country. The survey revealed that approximately 64 per cent of Indians had encountered fake news compared to the worldwide average of 57 per cent.

An extensive research project carried out by the BBC revealed nationalism as a major factor in the spreading of fake news in India. Even if people do not wish to incite violence, they feel it’s their duty to share ‘nationalistic’ news. They feel compelled to share fake stories of the nation’s progress without actually verifying the claims in these messages.

Similar to how multiple fake stories began appearing during the 2016 American elections, India has had to face its own fair share. Some stories have been repeatedly debunked only to return during the election period to either attack the opposition or provide false achievements candidates or parties.

For example, a false story on UNESCO naming PM Narendra Modi as the ‘world’s best Prime Minister’ has constantly surfaced over the years. It began showing up on social media again during the campaigning for 2019 elections. In truth, UNSECO does not even present an award for this.

On the other hand, there was also a video circulating which supposedly showed the Prime Minister confessing he had not studied after the 10th grade. This was heavily shared by Congress supporters. However, the misleading video was an old interview which had been doctored. Modi had actually said that he left formal schooling and written external examinations from that point onwards.

Owing to the emerging cases, there have been various attempts to curb fake news, but they have not always panned out. In 2018, the government announced its plan to ban journalists accused of writing false stories. The ban would have meant that the journalist or agency would be stripped of official accreditation for six months in the first instance, one year in the second and permanently if it were to be repeated a third time.

However, the government came under intense criticism from journalists. The situation aggravated to the point where press associations had to a conduct an emergency meeting to come up with a response. Eventually, the government was forced to abandon it. 

Reacting to the lynching incidents which were majorly due to rumours spread on WhatsApp, the messaging app decided to limit forwarding messages to a maximum of five chats to prevent the spreading of misinformation.

Facebook, Google and Twitter took added measures to prevent the onslaught of ‘fake news’ before the 2019 elections. All three platforms set up ‘ad libraries’ which required complete transparency regarding the purchasing of election-related ads as well as data.

Internationally-renowned and one of India’s most prominent cyberlaw and media law experts Karnika Seth believes there is an absolute need for fake news to be curbed. She told A Social India: “Advisories have been issued by the government and some self-regulatory measures such as websites have come forward that help detect if the news is fake.”

She also strongly feels that it is significant for the country to amend its legal framework at the same pace as today’s evolving technology. Not just for fake news, but for every new piece of technology, there should be measures to ensure that it does not breach rules.

That said, she does recognise how hard it can be to ensure equilibrium. She added: “Balancing the scales in the interest of justice is sometimes a complex and mammoth task but not impossible!”

And precisely as she mentioned, the prevalence of false stories has led to an increase in the number of fact-checking websites and segments which debunk popular fake pieces. The Quint’s segment, called WebQoof, dispatches journalists to verify viral stories. Additionally, it encourages users to submit stories through WhatsApp which they wish to verify. WebQoof was granted a signatory status by Poynter Institute’s International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN).

WebQoof post format

The spreading of misinformation will only increase as more people become internet users. Therefore, it is becoming essential for news publications to ensure rigorous fact-checking procedures as well as debunk any viral fake story. It’s also essential that users attempt to verify any piece of information before forwarding it. The internet is expanding at a rapid pace, and measures must be taken to make sure it brings more good than harm.

(Featured image source: Picpedia.org)

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