Fake news consists of news stories designed to mislead readers into believing falsehoods. They are created to spread propaganda to defame an individual or organisation. Unlike news satire which is meant to entertain, fake news is meant to misinform.
The advent of fake news becomes all the more dangerous when politicians – our leaders – indulge in them, accidentally or intentionally. They have massive online following and even one tweet on their part can spread a great amount of misinformation and lies.
Here are a few instances when India’s political leaders fell for fake news. (Not all of them apologised for their mistakes after being called out for peddling lies on social media.)
1) Sambit Patra, Spokesperson of BJP, 2017
Patra tweeted an article by The Times of Islamabad which said that “data by NDTV” showed that Prime Minister Modi’s Make In India initiative was a “flop show”.
Hmmm …Agenda!! https://t.co/4XmexwonMN
— Sambit Patra (@sambitswaraj) June 11, 2017
Fake story, also does not refer anywhere to NDTV. We are wrongly named in headline and URL. Please issue a clarification.
— NDTV (@ndtv) June 11, 2017
— Times of lsIamabad (@TimesofIslambad) June 11, 2017
Jumping on The Times of Islamabad’s tweet, Patra quoted the same by saying “Agenda”, a reference to his appearance on NDTV earlier this month where he was asked to leave the panel discussion after accusing the channel of having an “agenda”.
In reality, however, the Pakistani news portal had incorrectly sourced NDTV when its actual source was an article by former Finance Minister P Chidambaram in The Indian Express.
Patra is yet to delete his tweet or issue clarifications on the same.
2) Nirmala Sitharaman, Minister of State (Independent Charge) – Ministry of Commerce & Industry, 2017
Sitharaman retweeted a widely shared image depicting AR Rahman welcoming the “initiatives taken by the central government to curb cow slaughter”. Rahman never said those words.
Sitharaman undid her retweet and stated that “this seems unverified information”.
. @sgurumurthy, FYI : I am undoing my RT as this seems unverified information. Sorry about any confusion.
— Nirmala Sitharaman (@nsitharaman) June 10, 2017
3) Paresh Rawal, MP from Ahmedabad East, 2017
Rawal tweeted on May 21 that instead of stone pelters, Arundhati Roy, author and Man Booker Prize awardee, should be tied to an army jeep. He went on to say that journalist Sagarika Ghose should also be treated the same.
https://t.co/a6C2hWdpPz is such a toxic …Her birth certificate must be a regret letter from maternity ward !
— Paresh Rawal (@SirPareshRawal) May 17, 2017
70 lakh Indian army can't defeat azadi gang of Kashmir – Arundhati Roy .Her birth certi in fact is a regret letter from maternity ward .
— Paresh Rawal (@SirPareshRawal) May 17, 2017
This hatred of MP Paresh Rawal seems to have been inspired from a fake news story, which was also picked up by many mainstream news channels and print and digital media. The story alleged that Roy said “Even 70 lakh Indian Army cannot defeat Kashmiris.”
Postcard News is notorious for its fake news stories which created the story tweeted by MP Rawal sourcing The Times Of Islamabad, which is a website infamous for peddling fake news. However, in an interview with The Wire, Roy said that she had not been to Srinagar or made any statements about Kashmir, except for a short piece that she wrote in Outlook last year. She categorically denied the accusations.
Rawal has since deleted his controversial tweet, but not before millions read it and were misled into thinking that Roy actually made those comments.
4) Babul Supriyo, Union Minister of State for Heavy Industries and Public Enterprises, 2017
Rajkot mistook a 3D CAD representation as an actual bus stand in Gujarat. He was duly called out on his mistake, and he clarified on the same on Twitter.
5) Sambit Patra, Spokesperson of BJP, 2016
In a Times Now debate on a recent HRD Ministry rule to erect flagpoles in central universities, Patra attempted to evoke the viewers’ patriotism by using a Photoshopped image of American soldiers erecting the American flag on the island of Iwo Jima on February 1945. The fake image showed the soldiers erecting the Indian flag instead, and Patra fell for it, mistaking the soldiers to be Indian and the Japanese island to be the Indian border. He said, “Indian jawans, Indian soldiers dying, but holding up the tricolour, at the border.”
— Anand Ranganathan (@ARanganathan72) February 18, 2016
6) Arvind Kejriwal, Chief Minister of Delhi, 2016
Kejriwal retweeted a tweet which stated that a man from Madhya Pradesh committed suicide in a bank because he could not get new notes or withdraw cash for four days. CM Kejriwal retweeted the same post without verifying the facts behind the incident and added a comment on how demonetization is killing people and urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi to notice the helplessness and plight of the people of the country.
As per media reports, the man was not at the bank to withdraw money, but to rob it during the night. The locals and neighbours heard the noise and raised an alarm at which point he realised that the police had surrounded him and that he could not escape. Using the towel that he was covering his face with, he hanged himself and committed suicide.
However, even though Twitter users pointed to CM Kejriwal that the tweet is wrong and gave correct information, he did not apologise for the error, much less correct it himself. Even though this was not your typical fake news story, we expect more from a Chief Minister.
मोदी जी, ये देखिए। अब तो इस देश के लोगों पे रहम कीजिए। आख़िर क्या दुश्मनी है आपकी जनता से। ग़रीब की इतनी हाय मत लीजिए। https://t.co/26FPOwYTwo
— Arvind Kejriwal (@ArvindKejriwal) November 20, 2016
7) Priti Gandhi, National Executive Member – BJP Mahila Morcha, 2014
Gandhi tweeted an image that claimed that Julian Assange, Wikileaks founder, said, “America fears Modi because they know that he is incorruptible.” Assange never said these words. Wikileaks called Gandhi out for spreading fake news. Gandhi, however, was unapologetic.
— Priti Gandhi (@MrsGandhi) January 25, 2014
— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) March 17, 2014
8) Meenakshi Lekhi, MP from New Delhi, 2014
Lekhi tweeted that UNESCO had adjudged India’s national anthem as “the best anthem in the world”. She deleted the tweet because it was entirely false but found it difficult to apologise for spreading misinformation, choosing to argue that “trusting the obvious” is as good as the truth.
UNESCO or not D Indian national anthem is the best, trusting D obvious isn't criminal. Ashamed at D ignominy of Indians who don't believe so
— Meenakashi Lekhi (@M_Lekhi) June 22, 2014
The Logical Indian take
Making up news stories to fool or entertain the public is not a new trend. There are hundreds of fake news websites out there, many of which deliberately imitate credible newspapers in format and design, and trend misinformation. The hoax published by such websites gets social media attention and is then picked up by other sites. A chain reaction takes place and the hoax is published and proliferated everywhere.
This ultimately leads to the inability to verify the authenticity of the published reports. The potential to cause damage becomes more powerful over time. It reinforces people’s beliefs and falsely confirms their prejudices.
With the rising popularity of social media news, fake news creators are becomingly increasingly successful at creating viral stories.
Awareness regarding the harmful effects of fake news was ignited only recently. There have been several reports about Russian troll farms spreading fake news stories to influence the 2016 US Presidential election.
Fake news can have serious political consequences. Many politicians around the world have shared fake news stories, massively contributing to public misinformation. Recently, a fake story prompted the Defence Minister of Pakistan to threaten Israel with nuclear attack.
Fake news is everywhere: created by propagandists and shared by susceptible people. It has diluted our national conversation. In the digital age, every piece of information we read/watch needs to be cross-checked.
It can be either satirical or manipulative in nature. There are many outlets that write satirical news pieces with the sole purpose to entertain readers. Then, there are those whose sole purpose is to manipulate the readers.
While fake news in itself is toxic, it becomes all the more dangerous when it is shared by political leaders – be they Members of Parliament or party spokespersons or Chief Ministers. It doesn’t take much time or effort to check the validity of the content you are posting. We expect a lot from our leaders and they should strive to meet our expectations. Posting unverified content can be expected from an average internet user or a troll, and perhaps forgiven if this person clarifies and apologises, but when the same is done by a politician, who will have massive online following, it is worrisome. Even if a politician apologises in such cases (some of the above-mentioned individuals even failed to apologise for their mistakes), a lot of damage would already have been done. It is perfectly justified to hold our politicians to a higher standard and demand more accountability from them.
Fake news is dangerous to democracy. If the information is corrupted, the national debate is diluted and democracy is weakened. The viral nature of fake news has established a culture of lies and misinformation which continues to grow unchecked.
We request community members to be alert and treat the stories they read online with caution. We have a responsibility to verify everything that we share. Let us aim to end the propagation of misleading information.