Fake news” (FN), much heard about lately, is not news at all and is not part of any form of journalism. Typically, it is a part of the dirty tricks aspect of right-wing politics in many countries, as well as of intelligence outfits. The CIA has practised this dark art with consummate skill across the globe to outflank America’s opponents.
Journalism casts light. It seeks to spread credible information, analysis and views without which we will flounder in today’s complex and rapidly changing world. FN, on the other hand, spreads darkness. Its purpose is to confuse, spread falsehood and manipulate the unsuspecting minds of newspaper readers, television viewers and radio listeners, in order to disrupt the tempo and ethos of democratic politics.
In fact, the word “news” in its name is misleading. It should plainly be called what it is — “false information”.
“False information” is related to the pursuit of retaining power or making a lunge for power in deceitful ways — by designing supposed information in a way that creates the impression of truth, and then inserting it into the mass media stream. An important aspect of FN is to show the ideological and political cohorts patronising it in favourable light.
Both aspects have been on view from the Gujarat days of Prime Minister Narendra Modi — as seen in the fixing of opponents within the BJP-RSS parivar, the clever handling of the 2002 Gujarat pogrom which is politely called the “riots”, or the subject of fake encounter — and have stretching into the present.
In the Gujarat Assembly poll campaign last year, the PM himself practised FN when he publicly accused his predecessor Manmohan Singh, former vice-president Hamid Ansari, and a retired Army Chief, of conspiring with Pakistan to have him defeated. The Donald Trump election campaign for the US presidency practised FN successfully with the aid of a network of far-right and white supremacist interest groups and websites.
Since Hitler, fake news has been shown to be the mainstay of rightist plots to deflect criticism and to discredit and confuse opponents. The genius of Goebbels, the Fuehrer’s minister for propaganda and a vile man, is well known. The recipe he advanced was simply to cook up “facts” and then getting these repeated a hundred times so that people may believe them.
Once that comes to pass, to correct the situation and bring about disbelief in the false information — by now flowing freely in the mass media — becomes an uphill task. In our present day, such dangerous false stuff circulates wildly through the social media, such as WhatsApp, and is virtually impossible to roll back.
It is a pity our television stations do what they can to put a cloak over reality. Typically they catch someone from the Congress (or any Opposition party) and a person each from the RSS as well as the BJP (misleading us into believing they are different things) to be on the same debate panel on FN, but discuss good journalism versus dishonest journalism — failing to point out that fake news is not dishonest journalism but no journalism. It is an altogether different species.
Smriti Irani, the information and broadcasting minister, has expressed her desire to fight fake news. All power to her elbow. But the way she is speaking, it appears she’d go after news and views on the Web, 80 per cent of which is created by established media houses (who follow the rules and procedures of good journalism) or by thorough professionals.
She doesn’t speak of cleaning up the cesspool of the social media. But she could make a refreshing new start by telling us about Shilpi Tewari in the context of the scandal about doctored videos to bring into disrepute JNU student leaders in February-March of 2016, when Ms Irani was I&B minister.
According to a report in an English daily in March 2016 (such news items also appeared elsewhere), Ms Tewari’s Twitter account hosted some of these videos which were uploaded on YouTube. These purported to show that then JNU president Kanhaiya Kumar was “caught shouting anti-national slogans”.
A forensic report commissioned by the Delhi government showed that the videos were manipulated to create a certain effect. Ms Tewari dropped out of sight. The English daily quoted an I&B ministry spokesman to say that Ms Tewari may be “assisting” Ms Irani on a “private basis”, and that she had been offered an official position but had not taken it.
A volume was published last year, which detailed how the BJP produced propaganda on an industrial scale against political opponents and ideological antagonists. Its most prominent target was Rahul Gandhi. The book, written by a participant in the exercise whose conscience began to prick and she defected, speaks of the massive effort that went into making the whole country believe for a long time that Mr Gandhi was a “pappu” — a duffer.
This was sophisticated FN meant to degrade a key opponent before battle is joined, in the spirit of the teachings of Sun Tzu, the Chinese strategist who taught that the enemy should be defeated before it takes the field. The book was practically ignored in the Indian media — no doubt out of fear of the ruling establishment — but was reported at length in the Guardian, a famous British newspaper.
Mr Modi romped home victorious in May 2014. But his campaign for Delhi had begun well before that — with FN. In August 2011 then Congress chief Sonia Gandhi went to the US for a surgery. She was again in America in the first week of September 2012 for treatment. Shortly afterward, the future Prime Minister was already attacking the Congress Party and asking questions of then PM Manmohan Singh. He claimed (without credible basis) that the Government of India had spent `1,880 crores of public money on Mrs Gandhi’s medical treatment, Firstpost.com reported on October 3, 2012.
The basis of the astounding claim was apparently a newspaper report which had relied on a RTI application. It was plain to see that a convenient news item had been “planted” in a shoddy publication so that the BJP leader may later be enabled to allude to it in order to paint his chief opponent as corrupt.
The air was cleared when then chief information commissioner Satyanand Mishra officially replied to a RTI query by one Naveen Kumar from Moradabad that the GoI had not paid for the Congress president’s treatment abroad. In four years as PM, Mr Modi has been unable to substantiate his sensational claim.
In 2012, the present PM sought to use FN to tarnish his Congress adversary. After he became the PM, his party mounted an extensive FN campaign to portray Mr Gandhi as foolish and unfit for politics, and now FN sites are being used to discredit top quality news that’s critical of the Modi government.
At least one of these, The True Picture, has reportedly been endorsed by 13 of Mr Modi’s ministers. This is a clear sign of desperation at a time when five dalit BJP MPs from Uttar Pradesh have written to the PM complaining of the BJP’s attitude towards dalits. The political space is opening up.