“Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it, so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late”

- Jonathan Swift

Arghyadeep Dhar


The Story

All I know about truth is: it is a noun and nothing else. Truth is a very sophisticated thing. Sometimes it is harsh and heartbreaking. But there are times when truth is ‘metaphorical’ i.e. it is not 100% factually accurate, but believing in it can positively change our life. At the end of the day, truth is always hard to find and nothing can mentally prepare someone for its harshness. As a famous quote goes - “Truth doesn't care about our needs or wants. It doesn't care about our governments, our ideologies or our religions.”

We are currently living in an ‘Age of Information’ and we are breathing and swimming in a sea of information, statistics and data. These facts are interpreted by many people and from that different renditions are born. In this age of postmodernism, we have to look into all those versions of truth with an unbiased eye to have the most accurate form of truth. This being a Herculean task is what makes truth priceless.

Since truth is costly to find, it is not a sin to be unaware of ‘fact’. But what is becoming increasingly threatening to our democracy and society is ‘fake news’. The 28th president of the USA, Woodrow Wilson, popularized this term which was already existing in the American society. But on 2nd October 2019 during a press conference with Finnish President Sauli Niinistö, President Donald Trump took credit for inventing the term “fake news”. Essentially, he gave a piece of ‘fake news’ about the invention of the term ‘fake news’.

Long before 2016’s Presidential Election in the USA, Buzzfeed’s News Media Editor Craig Silverman revitalized the term when he was running research on Digital and Online Journalism. While President Trump is not the true inventor of the word, media researchers from different universities agree that Trump’s supporters consume the largest volume of ‘junk news’ on Facebook and Twitter.

Fake news media or yellow journalism has a long history. Our love for ‘fake news’ has aged like wine and its impact is becoming more intense and fatal day by day. Here are some notable events in history featuring incidents of ‘fake news’ being spread.

  • In the year 44 BC in Rome, Octavian’s publicity campaign against Mark Antony marshalled Twitter-worthy slogans engraved onto coins to destroy Antony’s reputation.

  • In the year 1835, 'The New York Sun' published six articles about the discovery of the presence of life on the moon, claiming to recount the findings of astronomer Sir John Herschel. It is known as 'The Great Moon Hoax'.

  • From 1899 to 1902, during The Boer War, propaganda canonised “the Boer” stereotype. It was made popular by the British Army to bend British public opinion to prop a not so popular war.

  • In 1917, British propaganda focused on demonizing the enemy Germans during World War I. The Times and The Daily Mail published essays claiming that due to a fat deficit in Germany, resulting from the British naval encirclement, the German forces were using the corpses of their soldiers to boil down for fats, bone meal, and pig food. This had implications during World War II when early reports of Holocaust brutality emerged. The disinformation contained within news stories in 1917 is said to have caused the accurate reports of Nazi barbarities to be doubted when they first appeared.

  • In Germany, with the emergence of Nazism, Joseph Goebbels instituted the Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda to spread Nazi messages of sensationalist, hatred-instigating violence against Jews, through all mediums - including theatre and the press. Edward Herzstein, in his book 'The War that Hitler Won', described the Nazi publicity campaign as “the most infamous propaganda campaign in history.” The Nazis killed Jews so efficiently that the inhumanity had popular support and Holocaust denial continued for a long time.

  • "The War of the Worlds" (1938), an episode of an American radio drama collection series, was presented as a series of simulated news bulletins to make it more interesting and compelling. Although heralded by a clear introduction that the show was a drama, it became famous for ostensibly causing mass panic. The reality of the panic is arguable as the program had comparatively few audiences. Nevertheless, this mass hysteria was said to be fatal: people were taking their lives by jumping off high rise buildings, mobs were on the street and there was total confusion everywhere. It is considered as one of the most remarkable cases of 'Information disorder'.

  • During the Vietnam War, U.S. announcements on the war were broadcasted at the end of the day through the programme “Five O’clock Follies”. The US propaganda campaign, sometimes called the “Optimism Campaign”, engaged the ‘domino theory’ (which says- if one country came under communist influence or control, its neighbouring countries would soon follow) as a fear tactic to stifle the voice of opposing political powers.

  • In 2010 the Egyptian newspaper 'Al-Ahram' ‘photoshopped’ a picture of world leaders on the way to the opening of a session of Middle East peace talks to place then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak at the front of the pack. The reality of the photo was exposed by an Egyptian blogger. In 2015, Egyptian TV anchor showed video game tape as evidence of Russian invasion in Syria.

  • Fake news sites have become common for Philippine audiences, especially on social media. Rappler.com used investigative journalism to identify and counter State-sponsored disinformation operations following the 2016 Philippines election. Their method included ‘big data analysis’, fact-checking and demystifying deceptive social media posts. Non-profit online news organization Vera File’s research found out that President Rodrigo Duterte benefitted the most from the advent of fake news. He is often regarded as the 'patient zero' in the current era of disinformation.

  • In 2016, before the Presidential Election of the USA, media reports unveiled a profitable troll farm run by teenagers in the small town of Veles in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. It was discovered that over 100 pro-Trump websites launching fabricated news were registered in Veles. One operator earned $16000 in the final 3 months of campaigning. The content included viral fake stories about the Pope endorsing candidate Donald Trump and the ‘imminent indictment’ of Democratic Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton. The operators of the fake news sites profited significantly from automated advertising engines like Google AdSense using their sensationalist, fake news. In the last few weeks of the election drive, President Obama talked about the “digital gold rush” because of Veles’ fake news farm

Wait for a second… How can I just forget to write about our very own Indian fake news media? India's fake news and its effects are adversely influencing our society for the last few years. Starting from the 'miraculous medicinal property of biological waste of certain species of mammal' to 'guaranteed Corona healer medicine', Indians have been in a whirlpool of fake news. Many cases have been reported where mob lynching has been triggered by child abduction rumours. Here are some more examples -

  • Muzaffarnagar 2013 riots, with 60 casualties, were triggered by a WhatsApp video. 

  • At the time of demonetization, newspapers and news channels spread a rumour that a chip would be embedded in 2000 Rs note for spying purposes.

  • A news media organisation named 'OpIndia' has been allegedly distorting the truth by misquoting statements, using misleading headlines, insulting many journalists with false allegations of sexual harassment and unethical behaviour.

  • Protests against CAA and NRC have been deeply influenced by fake news and wrong interpretation of the law. A significantly large number of protesters did not even have any concrete idea about CAA or NRC: they just came to protest as they thought that this law would take their citizenship.

  • In this ongoing Pandemic, some fake news alleged that 'Corona is Air-borne'. Some of them claimed that "Chinese experts have said that inhaling hot water vapour can kill coronavirus". Several drugs have been declared by 'WhatsApp University' to have a healing and resisting property to Corona. Even before the official lockdown, forged government documents about lockdown were circulated on WhatsApp.

There are so many instances of fake news in India that I can't cover all of them in one article. But the one thing I can say is- "Every lie we tell incurs a debt. Sooner or later the debt has to be paid." Every time we spread fake news; we have had to pay the debt in a fatal way.

Claire Wardle, the executive director of First Draft News, a non-profit organisation dedicated to educating journalists, identified seven types of fake news:

  1. Satire or parody (not intentionally causing harm but has the capability to fool readers)

  2. False connection (using headlines, photographs or titles that don't support the content)

  3. Misleading content (manipulation of information to 'frame an issue')

  4. False context (actual content is shared with misleading contextual information)

  5. Impostor content (when original sources are impersonated with fake, fabricated sources)

  6. Manipulated content (when accurate information or imagery is manipulated to deceive, as with a "doctored" photo)

  7. Fabricated content (the piece of news is 100% untrue, intended to deceive and cause harm)

In November of 2017, Wardle proclaimed that she had discarded the phrase "fake news" and "censors it in conversation", finding it "woefully inadequate" to show the effects. She now called it "information pollution" and classified it under three types of problems: 'mis-information', 'dis-information', and 'mal-information':

  1. Mis-information: false information broadcasted without harmful intent.

  2. Dis-information: designed and distributed by people with malicious intent.

  3. Mal-information: the sharing of "genuine" news with the intention to cause harm.

But why do we share fake news? Why does fake news become more popular than the truth? And what is being done to check this spread?

In a recent research paper called 'The Spread of True and False News Online' authored by Soroush Vosoughi, Deb Roy and Sinan Aral, the researchers have studied the trajectories of 100,000 news narratives, independently verified or proven false as they spread on Twitter. They have seen that false news diffused farther, faster, deeper and more broadly with respect to the truth. The accounts more prone to sharing fake news had fewer followers, tweeted less often, verified less often and had joined Twitter recently. Researcher Deb Roy also noted that people are biased to share negative news.

As satirical news can have the potential to become a piece of fake news, scientists who are working on the prevention of spreading fake news are deploying an AI for sentimental analysis for sarcasm detection of certain news. Techniques like 'n-gram encoding' and 'bag of words' are being used to filter the fake news from the true ones.

Computer scientists of MIT created and tested a Machine learning Algorithm based on the common patterns, words and symbols used in fake news for fake news detection. They also released open-source data sets of a large catalogue of historical news sources with their accuracy scores to help researchers working on the same topic.

Fact-checking and myth-buster websites like Snopes, About.com, Boom, WebQoof, Alt news, Factly, SMHoaxSlayer are gaining popularity in India. Moreover, media houses like 'India Today Group' and 'Times Group' are working independently as fact-checkers.

Attorney General K.K. Venugopal suggested to the Supreme Court to link AADHAR with social media. In Kannur District of Kerala, the government conducted several awareness classes in government schools. Facebook has also partnered with WebQoof and BOOM to filter out information pollution.

The virus of fake news is a threat to our democracy. Media is regarded as the fourth pillar of democracy. It is like a weapon of liberty that is given to us and we have to use it aptly. In this list of appropriate use, 'sharing fake news' never makes an appearance. We should not convert our liberty to sheer anarchy. Stopping the spread of fake news is as easy as not pressing the share button on Instagram, WhatsApp or Facebook. The fatal outcomes of sharing of fake news can be curtailed if we spread awareness regarding this issue and we handle social media more maturely. Otherwise the weapon that was meant to shield democracy will end up becoming its slayer.


Edited By :

Shreya Sahni

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