False and fabricated news has a history almost as old as jourlism itself. Ask any media expert and he can share instances galore of fake news masquerading as the real kind. The advent of social media has opened the floodgates to all sorts of dubious news, spurious SMSes, doctored images and videos. Take the demonetization aftermath, for instance. We have been bombarded with ‘news’ that the Rs 2,000 note comes with an embedded no chip or a radioactive ink which taxmen can detect from afar, that the UNESCO has declared this note as the ‘best currency in the world’. Earlier, the UNESCO had been in the ‘news’ for having declared rendra Modi the ‘best prime minister’ and Ja Ga Ma the ‘best tiol anthem’ in the world! It is easy to think of such ‘news’ to be so ludicrous as to be harmless fun, but there is a dark side. The Delhi Police has reportedly failed to find any evidence to il former JNU students union president Kanhaiya Kumar on sedition charges. This is a serious indictment of the kind of reporting carried out by a tiol news channel, based on doctored video clips purportedly showing Kumar too shouting anti-tiol slogans. Several media observers have rung the alarm bell, warning that fake news is increasingly being used as a potent political weapon. This development, coming on top of corporates using sections of the media as a tool to further their business ends — is being seen as a huge threat not only to the credibility of the jourlistic profession, but as a subversion of democratic process itself. It is in the US where this debate is raging, with the Trump administration taking on the likes of New York Times, Washington Post and CNN as ‘fake news media’ and ‘enemies of the people’.
For many observers, these bullying tactics are but part of a well-thought plan to create a climate of opinion against the news industry itself, particularly those purveying news that President Trump dislikes. But the media has been facing concerted attack in Russia, where Vladimir Putin has honed intentiol disinformation into a fine art. Jourlists are already being forced to re-invent themselves in an era of ubiquitous social media where anybody can dissemite information, as well as of wrenching changes in technology and revenue earning compulsions in the profession. And now, jourlistic objectivity is coming under scanner over allegations of paid and fake news mongering — raising questions about the role of jourlists as ‘gatekeepers’ conscientiously monitoring information flow to the society at large. Looking elsewhere, fake news has become such a big challenge that even a giant like Google is stumped. It turns out that the vaunted automatic and algorithmic match that Google Search gives to a query can throw up bizarre answers like Barack Obama being the ‘king of US’ and his ‘plans about a Communist coup d’état’ at the end of his term, or of the Republican Party as a group of zis! These howlers have been attributed to Google Search pulling up answers from fake news and conspiracy theory websites, and its ibility to distinguish between fake and correct information. As of now, Google is said to fix such problems manually on case-by-case basis, but Facebook has taken a big step farther. It recently made available a tool to identify fake news, which passes stories considered doubtful by users to third party fact-checking groups for verification. If the story is found misleading, it is given a ‘disputed’ tag, along with a link to a relevant article explaining why it could be false. Users will thus get sufficient warning if they want to share the story. Many other media houses too are experimenting with their own devices to detect and filter out fake news feeds. For users, whether they access news media or use social media, it is vital to keep a watchful eye and keen nose to detect fake news and not be misled. And for media houses, the responsibility to examine sources and verify facts independently has never been greater. India is known to be a difficult country for reporting the truth, and its jourlists need to do all they can to ensure they remain reliable gatherers and interpreters of facts.