It used to be Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics.
In this post-truth age, Fake News rules -- from the United States to India, its second-best friend after Israel.
In Washington DC, the US President, Mr Donald Trump, accuses the Media, the civil society and the opposition Democrat Party of manufacturing Fake News to malign him, his daughter and his son in law.
In New Delhi, the Opposition and civil society accuse the Prime Minister, Mr Narendra Modi, the President of his ruling Bharatiya Janata party, Mr Amit Shah, and their alma mater, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, of conniving with the mass media, the Social Media and Digital Media to manufacture Fake News that alters reality, stigmatises political opponents, targets activists, demonises minority religions and polarises the national landscape into Hindus and anti-nationals with an eye firmly on general elections in 2019, and the assembly elections in several states before that.
“Many of the fake stories go viral because they advance the Hindu nationalist agenda of the popular prime minister, Narendra Modi, and promote Islamophobia at the expense of the country’s large Muslim minority,” notes the venerable Los Angeles Times in a special story on Fake News explosion in India, and the Ghost Busters who are hunting it down.
The ruling clique has been caught in flagrant delicto passing off old videos, alien photographs and non-existent data presenting Muslims as killers, and Congress, Trinamool and Lohiaite leaders as condoning violence and appeasing Muslims and Christians, the two religions that Presidential candidate Mr Ram Kovind once notoriously called “aliens”.
And in a delectable twist of circumstance, the man who has exposed the Modi-Shah-Sangh Goebbelsian conspiracy is 35-year-old Pratik Sinha, the IT engineer son of physicist-turned-lawyer, the late Mukul Sinha of Ahmedabad who in his last years relentlessly pursued the then chief minister, Narendra Modi and his cabinet minister Amit Shah for their complicity in the targeted violence against Muslims in 2002, and several cases of extra-judicial killings. Mukul, his physicist wife Nirjhari and their son Pratik also ran the path-breaking @TruthOfGujarat , which martialled official data to consummately demolish the “Gujarat development model” on which Modi had based his dash to the Prime Ministership of India.
In recent weeks, Pratik Sinha [email: firstname.lastname@example.org] and his associates have launched www.altnews.in to take on the Sangh political call centres, exposing one person after another, stripping fake identities, and tracing meticulously with painstaking forensic precision the many whorls in the digital fingerprints behind Facebook posts, Tweets and TV reports that went viral on the internet and YouTube.
Los Angeles Times took notice when Sinha traced the people behind the targeting of Arundhati Roy, whose second novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness had been just released to the discomfiture of the Modi government whose brutal effort to supress Kashmiri youth’s unrest she condemned in the acidic prose that is her wont.
LA Times sequenced the developments: “ Pro-government websites in India circulated a story in May saying Arundhati Roy, the renowned Indian novelist, had criticized the Indian army’s heavy-handed presence in Kashmir, the disputed territory claimed by both countries. India would never gain full control of Kashmir, Roy was quoted as saying, “even if its army deployment increases from 7 lakhs to 70 lakhs,” numbers equalling 700,000 to 7 million.”
“Indian news media ran with the story. Arnab Goswami, the main anchor on a news channel owned by a politician from India’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party, denounced Roy, author of the 1997 bestseller “The God of Small Things” and an outspoken government critic, as “anti-national” and a “one-book whiner wonder.” One BJP politician said she be tied to the hood of an army jeep, like a Kashmiri civilian who was used as a human shield by a young Army major, Gogoi, during a bye-election escort duty.
“There was, however, one major problem: Roy did not make the comments about India controlling Kashmir. The original source of the report was a Pakistani nationalist site called Times of Islamabad that said Roy spoke during a visit to Srinagar, the summer capital of India’s Jammu and Kashmir state. Roy said she had not visited Srinagar and made no such comments. But by then she had already become the latest victim of India’s swirling epidemic of fake news.”
More than 20 crore social media users, mostly young and almost all apparently, followers of the Modi phenomenon, became a potent force multiplier. The competition between the TV news pioneer Arnab Goswami’s new outfit, Republic, and its competitors TimesNow, India Today and their Hindi and regional counterparts, provided just the fertile environment the virus needed.
The list of Fake News included TimesNow stories of rate cards circulating in Kerala that offered cash rewards for converting Hindus to Islam. TV News anchor, Rahul Shivshankar, who had succeeded Arnab Goswami in TimesNow, claimed the ISIS was behind all this and had set up a base in India from where it masterminded everything from the civil unrest in the Kashmir valley to the radicalising of youth in Kerala’s Muslim majority districts. Sinha’s Alt News found the report was based on a doctored image that had been circulating on propaganda websites and WhatsApp since 2010.
Many commentators, especially Seema Mustafa of TheCitizen.in, and Siddhartha Vardarajan raised an alarm. Vardarajan, who founded the internet based news site TheWire, tweeted “Something extraordinarily sinister going on in the Indian media. Leading TV channels blatantly promoting Islamophobia. Day in, day out.”
Recent successes include busting a Fake News purportedly showing JNU doctoral scholar Kanhaiya Kumar seeking freedom, or Azaadi, Kashmir. NewsX, owned by a former Congress stalwart, where Rahul Shivshankar had worked earlier, went to town on what it said was Kanhaiya’s ‘seditious’ rant.
Pratik Sinha’s team found the stories banked on a doctored video of Kanhaiya’s famous JNU campus speech called from freedom from want, caste domination and exploitation.
Sinha’s efforts have invited severe attacks from Modi’s followers and RSS trolls. In three months from December 2015 and February 2016, his posts were banned three times by Facebook under violation of the company’s ‘community standards’.
Sinha’s big coup has been in busting the website hindutva.info, a major agent of disinformation on behalf of the Sangh and the ruling group, and postcard.news, a more salacious site.
Sinha this week claimed an AltNews expose had led to the arrest of BJP Asansol IT in charge Tarun Sengupta in Bengal for spreading a fake video. AltNews in its web report said Tarun Sengupta who had posted a video on his Facebook timeline and had claimed that Muslim IPS officers were beating up a Hanuman Bhakt on Hanuman Jayanti this year. The video was in fact many years old and has been available on YouTube for the longest time.
AltNews found the video had nothing to do with Hanuman Jayanti which was celebrated on April 11 2017. This video has been available on the internet since September 2014. Pratik Sinha said, “Alt News will continue to call out people who spread fake news and fake videos. It is very unfortunate when people have to be arrested, but a civilised democratic society cannot entertain elements who deliberately try to instigate communal hatred between different religions via such nefarious means. Alt News has exposed many such instances of fake videos and hopes that various State Governments will take cognizance of the same and arrest the ones who are responsible for making such misleading videos viral. The only place these elements deserve is the back of a prison cell.”(Published on 17th July 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 29)