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Why we need a toolkit to tackle the superspreaders of fake news

It was another miserable day for those hit by the second wave of the pandemic. On May 19, India logged 4,529 deaths, the highest single day casualty since the beginning of the devastating pandemic in any country. In a normal world, that alarming figure would be the centrepiece of the news cycle. In a parallel universe, something else stole some of that spotlight. The BJP launched an all-out fusillade against the Congress led by its irrepressible spokesperson Sambit Patra. The pitch-deck was predictably out of the BJP playbook: The Congress was trying to destroy Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s reputation by shamelessly exploiting the health tragedy for political gains etc. Senior government ministers promptly jumped into trend #CongressToolkitExposed.

When I saw the Twitter trend, I momentarily panicked. Of late, the Congress has been making occasional tactical bloopers in trying to outsmart the wily BJP in the social media hemisphere. It is the party’s rather ham-handed ‘Janeu-dhari digital strategy’. But the BJP, in its frenzied effort to deflect criticism for its handling of the Covid crisis, appears to have made a few grave miscalculations.

Rajeev Gowda, who heads AICC Research, and has been a dear friend, is a thoroughbred academician. He is the kind who will carry an umbrella on a sunny day because there is a 0.3% probability of a sudden shower. It was most unlikely that the innocuous professor would be authoring a political thriller that would annihilate PM Modi’s Teflon imagery. Or, delegating the assignment to a relative newbie. Secondly, even if that were to be true, the giveaway was the communal twist to the fabricated document. The core pitch of the twisted toolkit was that the Congress had asked its social media volunteers to focus on the “super-spreader Maha-Kumbh” and soft-pedal Ramzan by “not commenting on Eid gatherings”. They may have been subsequently acquitted, but the Tablighi Jamaat congregation in March last year was successfully positioned as #CoronaJihad by Hindutva trolls, making India’s principal minority community appear like the deadly virus. For BJP, this has mostly delivered. But this time (like in West Bengal) it has badly boomeranged. The Congress, showing alacrity that it’s not been particularly famous for of late, lodged an FIR against the BJP leaders. Fake-news busting sites established that the original letterheads were morphed (in the age of fake RT-PCR tests, this is kindergarten stuff). And a day later Twitter flagged Patra and several BJP titans with the tag of “Manipulated News”.

The BJP and Congress will come and go, but India needs to wake up to a formidable challenge; the threat of fake news and alternative facts in a post-truth age. All political parties are guilty of occasionally propagating fake news but resorting to such artifice in the middle of a pandemic is a new low. When governance collapses, intolerant governments do not apologise, they like to change the political narrative. The BJP’s panic is understandable: India has recorded over 26 million cases (second highest after the US), and we have contributed to over 50% of daily cases and quarter of daily deaths. Bloated bodies have flown like debris down the Ganga. Patients have suffocated to death because of inadequate oxygen supply. Doctors have committed suicide. It is a woebegone tale. In the first week of April, India reached the highest weekly vaccination figure of 2.47 crore but instead of going up by May 21 that number had crashed by more than 60%. And while the caseload is dropping, India is still not out of the woods: we are celebrating the receding daily cases at 2.5 lakh but that is nearly three times the 2020 peak.

The answer is transparent accountable governance. Not fake news. Fake news is not a recent problem. The Muzaffarnagar riots were triggered by fictitious Facebook posts. Lynching deaths have occurred on WhatsApp forwards that circulated rumours about cow slaughter. The Benghazi attack on the US embassy in Libya happened because of an inflammatory religious post on YouTube.

Donald Trump’s relentless questioning of Barack Obama’s birth certificate had over 50% of the Republicans believe that he was a Muslim. And white supremacists in America’s rust belt are convinced that Hillary Clinton still runs a child prostitution racket. Fox News claimed that Joe Biden planned to ban hamburgers. Bottomline: Politicians are not just manipulating social media. They are mocking our collective intelligence.

Super-spreaders of fake news are the greatest danger to our democracy. Twitter and Facebook banned Donald Trump permanently. Can they do that to our politicians? The vaccine will one day end the pandemic. But the endemic problem of fake news will live on. We need a toolkit to stop it.



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Disclaimer

Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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