From lying to lynching

Out of Control: Purveyors of fake news and hatred online have turned India into a digital ‘mobocracy’

It is the giant elephant in the Indian newsroom that all stakeholders are desperately trying to sweep under the carpet -- the ever-growing swamp of fake news. And, much like hiding an elephant, having zero success with it.

What the recent Cobrapost sting revelations underline is that Indian journalism is broken. And, that the all-powerful owners of huge and powerful mainstream entities are happy to even allow their platforms to be used for mainstreaming hate to mess with people’s mind -- for a price.

The fount of fake news and pictures seems to be Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s private troll army, otherwise known as the BJP IT Cell. At least, they began it. As I discovered when I spent two years researching my investigative book “I am a troll: Inside the Secret World of the BJP’s Digital Army”, they get superstars like Aamir Khan attacked in a coordinated fashion. Modi is the only world leader to follow twitter handles that issue death threats, rape threats and indulge in incitement. As it became evident in the trolling of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and earlier Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, even top leaders of the BJP are not spared, and have to fight a lonely battle.

It’s the final mainstreaming of the fringe which has unleashed hate as India’s default DNA. And, no one is safe from the trolls now running amok. It all began in 2013, when the BJP and Modi took an early mover advantage of social media to put out a narrative. This involved industrial quantities of “Pappu jokes” and fake news. The nature of social media, with its anonymity, the scope for owning multiple accounts, and even the use of bots, allowed them to set the agenda.

And from there, here we are now in general election season, with the BJP IT Cell on steroids, with an unlimited budget, thanks to the BJP’s large war chest.

Modi’s doppelgänger and the second most powerful man in the BJP, Amit Shah, has recently been meeting and holding conventions of the IT cell. Shah tells his “yoddhas” (warriors) to fiercely fight the anti-BJP narrative. The BJP knows that “Acche din” have been elusive and the only way to possibly win re-election in 2019 is the time-tested strategy of polarisation. This is the narrative the IT cell, which is only answerable to Modi and Shah, is pushing. 

In the run-up, with Twitter and WhatsApp already mastered, the same fake news has to be pushed into mainstream media, which was what Cobrapost uncovered. Barring a few exceptions, most of the media was willing to play ball. Modi is not terribly bothered about facts -- witness the ‘Bal Narendar’ comics that showed him wrestling with crocodiles and the morphed picture of him sweeping the floor, which went viral ahead of the 2014 polls. 

I have been an investigative journalist for two decades. I personally don’t approve of sting and entrapment journalism, but what Cobrapost revealed is an open secret within the media. 

The free press gets its credibility from its role as the fourth pillar of democracy -- the watchdog on the other institutions. But, over the past three decades, the pillar has been crumbling and the watchdog has morphed into a lapdog in many cases, begging for crumbs from the government.

This is not the fault of journalists who remain honest while others morph into cheerleaders and “panna pramukhs” of the ruling party. Everyday, government-friendly channels question and blame the opposition and not the government, and this is now considered normal. They stick to the government line and ensure headline management by hoary plants, such as “assassination plots”, on the eve of elections with such low credibility that they are not even followed up by their sister publications. If all else fails, a “Dawood Ibrahim” scoop is peddled as grist to the channels mill.

This dependence on the government is simply because of the broken revenue model, which runs on selling newspapers cheap to the public. 

Similarly, corporates use advertising as a weapon. So, if you wonder why no adverse coverage appears on the biggest industrial groups, the answer is revenue.

Since people don’t pay for the news, someone has to. And that, to a disproportionate extent, is government advertising, which is given or withheld on how “friendly” the group is. A case in point is how the Vasundhara Raje-led BJP government in Rajasthan withdrew all government advertisements from Rajasthan Patrika to signal anger at coverage.

Similarly, corporates use advertising as a weapon. So, if you wonder why no adverse coverage appears on the biggest industrial groups, the answer is revenue.

While the menace of fake news peddling incitement for a price is ever-growing, the self-censorship practised by almost all Indian media, with a few brave exceptions, has huge implications.

Stories that are seen to be exposing the government’s claims are routinely killed. A very powerful BJP minister is ensuring that his favourites, those who peddle his line, are getting plum jobs across the industry. So much so that an editor working in a large daily in New Delhi had his links (call records) with arms dealer Sanjay Bhandari, who has fled the country, exposed, yet continues to be employed because he is “useful” to the owners.

Useful means the journalist in question gets government ministers and leaders to the innumerable “conclaves”, “summits” and events held by media groups all year around. The owners make money, the politician is flattered, and the sponsors get access to the powerful. The only sufferer is the journalist -- who has to beg the leaders to “grace the occasion”. Post such begging, what credibility will she have to question the same people.

The Chinese wall separating editorial from sales and marketing has collapsed and barely disguised fake news, dictated by sales, appears in the edit columns. This fake news is then further shared on WhatsApp, with the newspaper masthead or the channel logo providing much-needed credibility to buttress the narrative. The IT cells of most political parties indulge in peddling fake news all day, with disastrous results of riots and lynchings.

Will the fake news menace recede? I am pessimistic, especially as 2019 approaches. Cobrapost was hardly a sting operation. It was like the little boy who said, “but the emperor is wearing no clothes!”

Citizens, and the few media houses that still have some credibility, beware!

--

(Swati Chaturvedi is an independent journalist and author of “I am a Troll: Inside the Secret World of the BJP’s Digital Army)

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From lying to lynching

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