By Mahesh Nayak
Mangaluru, July 20, 2017: If all that we see on social media such as WhatsApp and Facebook were to be accepted without question, then you would believe the following to be absolutely true:
• Amitabh Bachchan is the illegitimate son of Jawaharlal Nehru.
• The wily Chinese are minting millions by feeding us with plastic rice and eggs.
• National Security Advisor Ajit Doval wrote a sarcastic letter to Arundhati Roy offering her with an Islamic terrorist for adoption.
• Congress workers wore rubber fingers to cast bogus votes during the UP assembly elections.
• An ugly alien creature was captured alive recently and its existence is being kept as a top secret.
Each of these is a blatant lie. The first three are fabricated stories without even a shred of truth. The last two are misrepresentations of real images and videos. It’s their explanatory text message that spreads the lie. The Chinese ‘plastic rice making machine’ video that many have seen is actually that of a plastic granule making unit (these granules are a raw material for making other legitimate plastic products). The ‘rubber fingers’ referred to earlier are prosthetic devices meant for rehabilitating ex-mafia members whose fingers were chopped by their bosses as punishment. It happened in Japan. The ugly beast video of a virtually hairless ape-like creature with sharp claws said to be a captured alien is actually that of a sick and starving bear that had been captured in Borneo, Indonesia. So seeing is not believing in social media.
This is just a small sampling of the thousands of fake posts that invade our lives through WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter every day. Each of these is carefully crafted to give a false message to the public. And the sad reality is that the public is falling for it hook, line and sinker, leading to the rapid erosion of social confidence in a big way. A trusting social environment is essential for society to function smoothly. Peace and harmony in society rests on the foundation of good faith between people regarding day to day matters. It is this sacred space that fake messages in social media are hitting at and for the time being, there is no regulatory or technical mechanism to check the invasion.
True the government and the authorities are frequently making noises about the fake news racket and also tweaked the law a bit to curb the menace. But in reality, precious little is being done at the ground level to actually stop the surge. Life goes on as usual and we get the feeling that citizens are left to fend for themselves; somehow we have to learn to live with it.
Fake is a four letter word for no ordinary reason. It takes a devious mind indeed to come up with motivated falsehood day after day. A majority of the fake messages that we see are born with a singular purpose – to carry forward the agenda of the political forces in power. They either seek to project the non-existent virtues of the NDA government and its leader Prime Minister Narendra Modi or to mock and vilify his opponents. Other fake posts which don’t fall into this category simply aim to cause mischief, arouse fear, reconfirm social prejudices or propagate superstition.
An elaborate list of quotations from famous wise men of the Western world praising to the glory of Hindutva is presently doing the rounds. Albert Einstein, Leo Tolstoy and Bertrand Russell are some of the luminaries who are quoted in this post. Just copy and paste the quotations into Google and the search result will enlighten you that none of these are true. That some of these person were long dead when the word ‘Hindutva’ itself was first coined by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar in 1923 does not seem to have bothered the ‘genius’ creator of this intellectual trash.
Yet another post – this time an image – asking you to look for the shape of Lord Krishna hidden in a holy flame is more innocent. You only need to blur your eyes a bit and kid yourself into seeing the shape of the Lord in the fire. Okay, here the message creator’s objective is only to invoke your superstition and get you to forward it to many others so that divine blessings may fall in your lap. Ditto is the post asking you to see the shape of the Lord of Tirupati in the formation of the clouds in a photo of the sky. But not so the image of a waterfall with the likeness of Modi hidden in the white foam of the falls. Here the image of the leader can be clearly seen to be superimposed using digital technology. And the objective too is cheeky. It wants you to join his fan club.
Tracking the source of all this mischief is difficult, in fact tougher than it is supposed to be to pinpoint the origin of a river. The internet is a haven of anonymity and gives mischief mongers multitudes of ways to hide. Right from creating false identities to using weaknesses in the very nature of information sharing platforms, there is no dearth of safe pockets to dodge detection. And it would take one’s sustained efforts to find the culprits. In September, 2016 a person called Dhruv Rathee made waves by coming out with a documentary called ‘BJP IT Cell Exposed: How lies and propaganda are spread’. In it he clearly shows how BJP maintains an ‘IT Cell’ whose main job is to generate fake posts to project its ideologies and also to engage in trolling activities in cyberspace to harass political opponents. The so-called ‘IT Cell’ employs small time unemployed youth to quietly do its dirty work. A small amount is paid for their labour, he says. Obviously the ruling party wants to hold on to power at any cost. His video has so far garnered 426,474 hits on YouTube.
Yet another internet warrior is Pratik Sinha of Altnews.com, who describes his website as ‘Alternative News and Views in the Post-Truth World’. He has used his prodigious knowledge of the ways of working of the internet to trace the arch villains of right wing mischief. He identifies a person called Rajesh Jindal as the brain behind fake news portals like Hindutva.info. His step by step explanation of his investigative techniques and analysis of evidence gained makes his tracking seem like a game of Sherlock Holmes Vs Professor Moriarty. Making a fortune out of his hobby of spreading hate seems to be the business model invented by this fake news entrepreneur. In one of his videos Rajesh Jindal openly claims that he earns as much as Rs. 10 lakhs a month from his ill conceived activities. Pratik Sinha validates the truth of his claim by showing how he has nurtured a captive audience for his fake messages and how by selling advertising space on his portal to shady rackets, he could easily be earning that kind of money. In trying to expose such frauds, Sinha seems to be playing with fire. When last heard of, he had filed a police complaint that he had just then received a threat call purportedly from underworld thug Ravi Pujari.
Whether other political parties also maintain such dedicated units for generating fake news is presently not known. But almost all parties have their own mouthpiece media organizations to project their view point and get back at opponents using journalistic fronts. Modi’s nemesis Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Admi Party, for example, runs Janta Ka Reporter, a dedicated news website. The chief difference between BJP’s IT Cell and AAP’s news portal is that the former operates stealthily to spread blatantly lies, while the latter is more open about it and sticks to journalistic mode to meet its ends.
Using disinformation as a tool of political propaganda is nothing new. It has been there since ages sustaining power for emperors and kings. During the Cold War it served as a delightful hobby for the intelligence agencies of the super powers. CIA of the United States and the Soviet Union’s KGB played mind games with each other using propaganda as their potent weapons. Authoritarian regimes have a special liking for it. As early as in 1933, Adolph Hitler had set up a full-fledged Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda under the control of the notorious Joseph Goebbels, his right hand man. In common man’s life word-of-mouth gossip, rumours, slander and urban legends played the role of today’s fake news and can be said to be its predecessors.
Introduction of postal service gave birth to chain letters, an early form of fake messaging which would goad the recipient to forward the letter to others. Such letter chains are known to have survived for years. A disturbing sidelight of this trend is the Nigerian Letter Scam which survives up to this day via e-mail. In it scamsters sitting in Africa send tempting letters to recipients around the world offering astronomical amounts of money as a cut for co-operating with them in a fraudulent transaction by lending their legal identity or bank account. Typically the letter would seem to come from a corrupt government official requesting help in laundering a huge bribe that he was about to receive. Once the victim was lured by the greed, he would get repeated requests for small amounts of money transfer for ‘processing’ costs. These amounts would keep increasing and the victim, obviously operating secretly to avoid busting the illegal transaction, would keep paying up while consoling himself that it is a necessary investment for reaping the promised booty. Occasionally they would be asked to visit their country for meeting more ‘formalities’ where the victim would be further looted, if at all he was lucky to be alive.
This is not a Hanuman Gadha being excavated in Sri Lanka. It is the photo of the installation of a 125-foot-high Hanuman statue in Indore
With the advent of the internet chain letters got transformed into e-mails and further embellished with graphic pictures or videos. While these chain mails would contain true photos of incredible phenomena (such as pictures of natural wonders), very often the messages would also be fake - such as photos of a dead man found in a python’s stomach. On the whole the chain mail activity would be harmless.
Unfortunately this is not the case with the present glut of fake posts and forwards. Most of the fake items we see are deliberately fabricated with evil intent and the objective of provoking hate, feeding prejudice, arousing fear and spreading malicious slander. As surmised by rationalist leader Prof. Narendra Nayak, the plastic rice and synthetic eggs bluff in particular is possibly being orchestrated by the lucrative organic and desi food industry (see accompanying article). More alarming than all this is the eagerness with which people are readily believing the falsehood and also enthusiastically sharing them. Education, common sense and cultured upbringing are proving to be no restraint for the phenomenal perpetuation of the fake ecosystem. Mob mentality and the suspension of sound judgement make the situation an alarming indicator of the emerging social scenario and how it could adversely impact the fabric of society.
There are reasons why the government is ineffective in curbing the menace, the primary one being the ruling clan of the nation is itself the chief generator and beneficiary of the malaise. In fact fake news seems to be an important part of its strategic game plan. Hence its half hearted approach is self explanatory. Its only solid move has been to make social media group admins accountable for any issues associated with the group. As for the state government, issuing a formal clarification regarding Chinese plastic rice and eggs was only one of the rare occasions when it has intervened to counter fake news.
Moreover social media, being a part of the virtual world, is difficult to monitor and control. WhatsApp forwards, for example, are difficult to back track or eradicate. In an earlier case involving social media abuse, the Mangalore City Police had complained that Facebook was uncooperative in providing assistance in its investigations. Though the police maintain a cybercrime unit and regularly warn the public against indulging in mischief on social media, it is doubtful whether it has the technology or investigative tools required for being truly effective. Police are also helpless in acting against fake news as it is empowered to intervene only when there is anti-social behaviour such as inciting violence, provoking communal strife, committing sexual offences or indulging in defamation.
For the time being, the best way to combat fake news seems to be spread awareness about its harmful effects and hope that wisdom prevails. A society that drifts from the truth is a society that is headed for doom. The authorities should devise a long lasting strategy to work with NGOs, voluntary organizations and socially spirited citizens to launch a massive awareness drive to make the people reject fake news and kill the evil beast.
The ‘Truth’ Factory
Here are a few simple means by which fake news is generated.
Many fake images like this picture of a multiheaded snake are created by digitally altering a real photograph. In this case it is the photograph of a real King Cobra which has been manipulated to make it look like it has seven heads. These changes can be easily made on a computer using an image editing software called Adobe Photoshop. Though they look like genuine photographs to the layman, a technical expert can detect if it is fake by looking for tell tale signs of the image editing process.
Fake News Generator
The fake image on the right created a sensation during the last Delhi Assembly elections as it negated the popular notion that Kiran Bedi (who was BJP’s Chief Ministerial Candidate) was not the first woman IPS officer. Though the newspaper heading looked authentic, it was later revealed that it was fake news created with the help of a website called ‘fodey.com’. If you Google ‘news generator’ or ‘fake news generator’ you will find many similar websites where you can generate your own news and images. These are meant to be used for fun, yet unscrupulous people often use these websites to create mischievous content and forward them as genuine posts.
You TUBE / GOOGLE
Many fake news creators simply take any available image or video they come across and use their criminal mind to draft the accompanying text message. For instance the adjacent image is a screen grab of a video which created a scare in the city. It was said to be CCTV footage showing paranormal activity at night outside the mortuary of AJ Hospital, Mangalore. Google search revealed that it was a fake message and the original video was made by two pranksters who were hospital staff in a South American country.
A do-it-yourself guide to cracking fake news.
Having the good sense to protect oneself from mental garbage is what differentiates the well informed citizen from gullible folks. Here is a simple check list that will prove handy for making your mind fake proof.
Top hoax buster websites to go to
There are many websites which are dedicated to debunking fake news. You can access them for getting the correct information. For doubts concerning India-specific issues it’s best to access Indian hoax buster websites.
Snopes, Urban Legends,Break the Chain, Hoax Slayer, Truth or Fiction
Altnews, Check4Spam, SM HoaxSlayer, Boomlive, Bangalore Mirror (9902028822)
UNESCO NEVER SAID IT!
Quoting reliable sources is one of cunning methods used by hoaxters to gain the trust of their victims. Attributing fake messages to iconic names like UNESCO, Guinness Book, National Geographic instantly enhances its credibility and makes people blindly believe and share the fake message. The above two are the most famous fake messages doing the rounds. UNESCO is a global arm of the United Nations and does not sit in judgment of individual countries on matters like Best National Anthem and Best Prime Minister. Some time back, when the magazine India Today wrote to the UNESCO asking for details and clarifications regarding this ‘announcement’, Sue Williams (Chief, Editorial, Press Relations and Unesco Courier, Bureau of Public Information, Unesco) wrote back that no such award has been announced. She wrote that the UNESCO was aware of this mail, but it was not true. “We are aware of several blogs in India reporting this story, but can assure you that Unesco has made no such announcement concerning the anthem of India or any country,” she wrote.
P. N. OAK – HOAXMASTER NO. 1
Even his name sounds like it!
Ever heard of Taj Mahal being originally a Hindu temple? Chances are you have, but do you also know that this theory was first proposed by a person called P. N. Oak? Well he’s not an Englishman, but a pakka Desi, his full name being Purushottam Nagesh Oak. Born in 1917 his colourful life included a stint in the Indian National Army serving as assistant to Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. After independence he worked in editorial positions for mainstream newspapers like Hindustan Times and The Statesman.
Oak devoted his later life to come up with weird theories attributing Indian origin to everything that caught his fancy. Apart from saying that Taj Mahal was a Hindu monument, he has also claimed that the Kaaba at Mecca, Christianity, Vatican City and even the Stonehenge are of Vedic origin and that Christ was originally Krishna. Mainstream academics have dismissed him as an eccentric historical revisionist, but he found favour with Sangh Parivar and its India-centric view of the universe. Someone also tagged him with a non-existent title of ‘Professor’. Oak died at the ripe old age of 90 in 2007 in Pune, having gained more name and fame from his dubious research than any legitimate historian.
What is Hoax, What it’s Not.
Hoax / Fake news
Photos & Videos with False Explanations: This is the most common type of hoax. Usually the videos will contain gruesome violence or sensational content and sometimes feel good items too. Most often the videos will be genuine, but the accompanying text will give a misleading or distorted story behind the video.
False Quotations and Anecdotes: Fake news creators love to attribute fabricated opinions and anecdotes high lighting their prejudiced views to famous people like Ratan Tata, N. R. Narayanamurthy, Vladimir Putin etc.
Anonymous / False Authorship: Fake news and hoax posts are normally anonymous regarding its creator’s identity. Most often they are silent or give fake author name or originate from sources which are difficult to pin down to a particular individual.
False Endorsements: Using names of popular organizations, news agencies and authority figures is a favourite among fake news creators. These include reference to UNESCO, Guinness Book etc.
Distortion of History / Past Entities: History is largely based on expert interpretation of evidence. Hence it gives scope for distortion and serves as a fertile territory for hoaxsters.
‘Paid’ News: These are sponsored news items appearing in mainstream media. Typically they may show a marginal bias or make a subtle pitch to influence you but will never go all the way to spread lies or half truths.
Yellow Journalism: This appeals to our base nature by projecting exaggerated content, unpleasant material, defamatory items, violence and gore. Though flirting with journalistic norms, it does not qualify as a hoax as the objective is sensationalism and not deception.
Jokes, Cartoons, Parodies: Jokes, cartoons, parodies and satire are considered to be a legitimate form of expression and is actually encouraged in progressive societies. In fact there is a parody website called fakingnews.firstpost.com which publishes satire on a daily basis, but now its popularity is waning due to the stiff competition from genuine fake news in the social media!
Ideas & Opinions: Posts projecting ideas, opinions and viewpoints are legitimate forms of expressions, even if they’re very critical, outlandish or generally disaggreeable.
Genuine Fiction / Mystery: Sharing of creative works of art, unexplained phenomena and mysteries are not hoax material provided they do not pretend to be something different.