Backstory: Wake Up! The Active Lie of Fake News Needs a Passive Recipient

A fortnightly column from The Wire’s public editor.

A fortnightly column from The Wire’s public editor.

The active lie needs a passive recipient. The credibility of a piece of information is in direct proportion to the willingness of people to invest it with “believability,” and this “believability” is itself a factor of individual experiences, belief systems, anxieties – as well as influential media content. It is this quality of “believability” that allows Adityanath to emerge for many as a wise pilot of India’s largest state within a month of his appointment as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. In this period, the harms perpetrated by his brand of religion-infused policymaking in the lives of innumerable Indians remain under-reported, even as false attributes are attached to his every action. The Wire’s piece, ‘Politics of Fake News: “End of Quota” in Private Colleges Sold as Yogi’s “Anti-Corruption” Move’ (April 14), called out the alacrity of a major national news magazine in applauding him on working “for the betterment of state and to end corruption” by planting false information.

If prominent media houses relinquish their obligation to set up proper fact checking systems, when they also have the means to do so, the only conclusion that can be drawn is that they have a vested interest in falsifying information. The Wire piece, ‘What the Indian Media Can Learn From the Global War on Fake News’ (April 21), rues the “overall atmosphere” in Indian media establishments that accept stories at face value, especially – and this is important – when they conform to the editorial line of the publication.

Any piece of information or image, even if it is patently false, is transformed once it gets published. The mere act of dissemination adds immeasurably to its “believability” quotient and contributes to creating a discourse of good and evil. Such a discourse, according to Paul Brass in his book, The Production of Hindu-Muslim Violence in Contemporary India, “becomes integrated into individual thought and behavior, thereby providing an internal motivation for the instigation of and participation in acts of violence”. Brass identifies three phases in every riot: preparation/rehearsal, activation/enactment, and explanation/interpretation and argues that the media in India have been “deeply implicated in the dynamics of riot production in post-Independence India” – and in each of these stages.

Fourteen years after Brass wrote this, the multiplicity of media platforms on offer has only hastened the pace of such riot-like developments, as we saw in 2013 when communal violence engulfed Muzaffarnagar – a region that had never experienced communal polarisation earlier – within the space of a few days. Today, Sangeet Som, then MLA from UP’s Sardhana assembly constituency, accused of sharing the fake video on his Facebook page that proved a major trigger for those riots, has escaped the scrutiny of the law. Last fortnight, the Special Investigation Team on the Muzaffarnagar riots, by filing a closure report on the case, signalled institutional tolerance for spiked videos that lead to mass deaths and destruction. In other words, we have to learn to live with these potential informational time bombs and love them. Around the time when Som was being given his reprieve, there was another horrific video going viral – this time in Bihar – which held eerie echoes of the Muzaffarnagar ruse (‘Fake News: Hatemongers Passed Off Bangladesh Video as Anti-Hindu Violence in Bihar’, April 15). Fakery, it needs to be remembered, is not a prerogative of any one community and recent times have also thrown up toxic stuff that targets Hindus as well. It works both ways and can let loose unending communal attrition.

Instruments like fake videos, designed to act as knives to slash at the social fabric, would have been rendered blunt if it was not for what Brass terms “a pervasive discourse that emphasised Hindu-Muslim differences and hostilities in India”. This, according to him, provides the framework that allows even insignificant developments to acquire the proportions of major confrontations. The rise of saffron vigilantism feeds on this hostility and erases even the natural bonds of common citizenship.

Two pieces carried by The Wire this fortnight, based on visits to the home of Pehlu Khan, a Mewat dairy farmer set upon by murderous goons masquerading as ‘gau rakshaks‘ (protector of cows) on a major highway, revealed how an ubiquitous sense of vulnerability had now gripped the Muslim community after that lynching. “We came across a man pushing a cycle with a large vessel placed on the pillion. He had just crossed us when I suddenly turned around and asked him if it was biryani that he was carrying. Yes, he replied, promptly adding that it was chicken biryani. The tension was writ large on his face” (‘Victims of Cow Vigilantism in Alwar Recount Police Harassment in the Name of Law’, April 16). The memory of the killing continues to remain a haunting in Khan’s family: “‘Tadpa tadpa kar maara (They tortured him to death),’ the wail bursts from her body. She covers her face with her dupatta” (‘Gau Wapsi: A Muslim Cattle Trader and the Cows He Loved’, April 19).

How did these random acts of barbarism come to be so normalised? A piece, carried by The Wire, on the lynching of a university student, Mohammad Mashal Khan, in Mardan, second largest city in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, reports: “Rumours had started circulating on the morning of April 13 about Mashal’s alleged ‘gustakhi’ – literally disrespect, but in the context of Pakistan, blasphemy. Concerned, some of his teachers had driven him away from campus to another location, but Mashal returned to his hostel, saying, ‘I have done nothing wrong, why should I hide?’ When the mob came for him, he stood no chance.” (‘University Student the Latest Victim of Pakistan’s “Blasphemy” Vigilantism’, April 14).

A border may separate India and Pakistan, but in both countries we had a similar punishment being meted out for a similar accusation: the crime of blasphemy. Recognising this equivalence is especially hard for us, in this country, because we have always prided ourselves on our tolerance and democracy. When an article carried by The Wire suggested that ‘By Mixing Religion With Politics, India is Going Down Pakistan’s Road’ (April 20), a stout denial was issued by one reader who wrote in: “India will never become Pakistan because Hindu’s do not believe in religion the same way Christians and Muslims do. In a Hindu Rastra – there is no wrong or right religion. All are equally respected. This is the fundamental difference between any Muslim country and India and is the root cause of discrimination because every non Muslim becomes second class citizen in a Muslim country.” But this begs the question: do family members of Pehlu Khan today feel like equal citizens when their father’s murderers are glorified, where the police instinctively seek to punish them rather than their tormentors, where a minister denies in parliament that the crime ever happened, where the state’s chief minister took 25 days to break her silence on it?

A former senior judge raises a question that should be widely flagged: “What is the defining characteristic of a nation? Is it the territorial boundary or the collection of people that is a country’s defining feature” (‘Why Are We Being Told What to Say, What to Eat, When to Stand: A.P. Shah on False Nationalism’, April 20).

The Wire has brought together a set of writing over the last fortnight that has tried to measure up to the challenge of the breaking, heart-breaking, news. But is this enough? How are platforms like it going to define themselves against the “the cacophony of a reactive news cycle”? How effective are they in pointing to “our own inability as citizens to hold on to values of morality and empathy. We have allowed lunatics to set the agenda, as we sat back to ‘consume’ (and occasionally react) via traditional and social media”? (‘The Vigilantes Are Here. How Do We Fight Them?’, April 26).


World Press Freedom Day comes up next week (time perhaps to rename it World Media Freedom Day because the word “press” can no longer reflect the media universe). While there is disdain for pro forma commemorations of this kind among many media professionals, it is time perhaps to consider the need to defend the three interlinked principles outlined in the Windhoek Declaration. Reiterating the need for media freedom including physical safety of journalists; independence from commercial and political interests and professional autonomy; and pluralism reflecting heterogeneity of subject and diversity of content has never become as urgent as it has today. The country has been slipping steadily in indices of media freedom – Reporters Without Borders has just demoted India by three rankings, which now figures at the 136th slot among 180 countries.


In response to the piece, ‘Why the Highway Liquor Ban Will Only Make a Small Dent in Curbing Road Accidents’ (April 19), The Wire reader Jaiprakash Jaiswal came up with the idea that India should introduce a Ignition Interlocking Device (IID) on the dashboard of all vehicles. Similar to a breathalyser, the IID requires that the driver breathe into the device before starting the vehicle. If the ignition interlock device detects the blood alcohol concentration of the driver to be above the programmed limit, the engine of the vehicle will not start. Any takers?

Daljit Singh, from Germany, enjoyed episode 41 of Jan Gan Man Ki Baat, having accessed it on YouTube. He suggests that The Wire develop an app for it.

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