Is ‘Fake News’ the Real Problem?

The problem is not just that rumour mongers exist, but that they are patronised and encouraged by people in power.

We all know the local conspiracy theorist – the one saying ‘Islam is in danger’, or ‘Hinduism is in danger’, or that ‘the gays want to convert our children’, or ‘the Jews (or the Vatican, or somebody else) control the media’. These claims are farcical at the best of times, offensive to both sense and sensibility, but in the worst of times they take on an ominous quality.

For those of us who lived through the riot-strewn 1990s in India, and those who continue to live in the vast regions of J&K, the Northeast and various part of that weird organism called ‘the Red Corridor’, we know that rumours can be dangerous, even deadly. People are shunned, attacked and even killed over the same rumours that were dismissed as trash in more peaceful times. That does not absolve the rumour monger of the blame, but it should give us some context as to what is responsible for ordinarily rational people believing in the most outrageous untruths and turning into an unruly mob able to carry out the most heinous violence on innocent neighbours.

The liar is a problem only because we believe the lie, because we don’t fact-check the claims. The real question is how did we turn from a republic whose founders emphasised scientific rationality to a republic of gullible fools.

A breakdown of trust

Trust in a democracy is a complicated thing. Unlike authoritarian systems, democracies don’t demand blind trust from their citizens. Scepticism of the government is an essential attribute of democracy because it is built on checks and balances. Those that govern are human, after all, with all the human frailties within them, as liable to lie and steal as the next person. Democratic systems take this for granted, and deal with it by promoting transparency and accountability. In a democracy, a citizen is not obliged to believe in the inherent goodness of those that govern her, instead a citizen is offered an assurance that systems exist – including an independent judiciary and a free press – that the truth will emerge and due process followed.

This is not the whole truth, of course. We know that we live in an unjust world and the rich and powerful manage to manipulate the system, but – with enough openness, with enough believers in the system including those in the system – even the rich and powerful don’t get away with everything. This is enough to keep that trust alive, and democracy working.

In times of crisis, this system, and the trust in that system, break down. For example in the case of riots, injustice is not a far-off situation where the rich and powerful steal stealthily from the state, but a matter of life and death. Nor can we wait on the free press to reveal what is happening because we need to know now. And the errors that reporters make (as they must because they cannot be perfect) and their silence on crucial issues (whether out of bias, lack of information or political pressure, or just because they are making sure to not print something they are not fully sure about) leads everybody, on all sides, to brand them as unreliable.

A concerted attempt to weaken India’s institutions

It is in such situations that rumour mongers come into their full power. It is not that they are suddenly strong, it is because the institutions that limited the power of lies have been catastrophically weakened.

The striking thing about the lynchings, the frenzy of violent attacks, the proliferation of ‘fake news’, is that this is not happening in a riot-like situation. The strength of rumour mongers in today’s India is because of how institution after institution has been weakened. The power of the state, and the lapdog media channels, has been used to weaken the very aspects of the system that allow us to believe in it.

Not only do politicians say manifestly untrue things (Rs 15 lakh in your bank account, nanochips in your Rs 2,000 notes, the end of militancy due to removing currency notes in the system), they then attack the very institutions – the judiciary, the free press – that are supposed to fact check them. A citizen finds it impossible to believe what public figures say – while the figures have powerful forces that dominate the political and media space attack any criticism as fake news.

Most people do not have the means to verify who is correct in such a situation, and – as happens in riots – they disbelieve everybody (“sab mile hue hain”). As those who could critically examine the world around them are silenced by doubt, the dubious charlatans, the conspiracy peddlers rise. To quote Yeats, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”

Worst of all, those in positions of power have achieved their positions through the propagation of lies, fear and innuendo, and they continue to feed this massive machine of undermining the authority of institutions. The Nazis used the phrase “lugenpresse” (the lying press) to undermine their opponents. You hear the term at Trump’s rallies. In India, our very own V.K. Singh coined “presstitute”. And, of course, not only does Modi’s Twitter handle follow the likes of people who celebrate Gandhi’s assassin, but senior ministers repeatedly tweet “news” from rumour mongers such as Postcard News, whose lies are well documented.

The problem is not just that rumour mongers exist – they have always done so, and will always do so in every society – it is because they are patronised and encouraged by people in power, while the institutions that helped limit their power are also being weakened.

India’s problem isn’t ‘fake news’. It is ‘feku’ – the fine art of turning tall claims, half-truths and blatant lies into a potent brew and force-feeding it to people through open and hidden channels of communication, while powerful political actors simultaneously stoke fear and distrust.

Omair Ahmad is an author and the editor of Third Pole.