Revolutions devour their children and sometimes, the children devour themselves. Fake News is the dark twin of India’s technological revolution with mass connectivity integrating a largely illiterate and superstitious population. Encrypted evil, spread through Photoshopped images and WhatsApp group messages, has incited lynching and riots. And the Indian government, like others across the world, is at its wit's end. The I&B Ministry’s warning that work documents of a reporter accused of spreading “fake news” would be suspended had to be retracted within 24 hours after outrage from the media.
In this Rapid Information Age, where the right to know demands instant gratification, Twitter and WhatsApp are the main news sources. They are now banking on “experts” to handle the issue—WhatsApp has announced $50,000 awards to come up with research projects to study fake news. Toxic canards assume larger septic significance with elections approaching, with the potential for a rumour, a morphed photo or a wrongly attributed video to cause a conflagration having risen manifold. Since group forwards are the biggest culprit, WhatsApp is introducing the ‘suspicious link’ feature, which will flag unverified mass forwards with a red label. The courts have ruled that anyone who forwards a message is culpable if it is fake and dangerous. Fake News is a global phenomenon; Donald Trump is an ardent exponent. A fact-checking agency reported that he lied more than 3,000 times in 466 days. The worrisome part is that many believe him.
John Milton wrote, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of Hell, a hell of Heaven.” Fake News is corrupting the cornerstone of human belief, that truth is not what it appears to be, or not to be. With Photoshop, you can’t even trust your own eyes. The tendency to believe the worst is stronger than the opposite. Science has an explanation—the ‘availability heuristic,’ a mental shortcut that leads us to exaggerate the frequency of an event when it occurs too often and is vivid in memory, subconsciously encouraging bias; like a terrorist attack or a communal incident.
Then ‘emotional reasoning’ forces us to arrive at conclusions based on feelings rather than facts. A ‘confirmation bias’ encourages us to look for information that supports what we already believe. Fake News succeeds, if scientists are to be believed, due to these three mental flaws. An MIT survey revealed that false news stories were 70 per cent more likely to be retweeted than the true ones and remain in circulation longer as unbroken retweet chains.
And the once trusted oracle, the media, has failed its consumers. It has become a prominent purveyor of false news, with Fake News websites masquerading as news sites spreading mendacious malice. Character assassinations even lead to assassinations. In the 1903, one of two competing US newspapers ran a story about a Slav named Swenekaf who died in a gunfight over a dog. The rival paper promptly carried the news item the next day as its own. The lie was exposed when the first paper reported that the story was a deliberate ploy: Swenekaf in reverse reads fake news.Today, the truth in reverse is not a lie, but an elegy written with the blood of innocents.