NEW DELHI - It happened in less than 24 hours: a stringent order by India’s Information and Broadcasting Ministry to suspend press credentials of any reporter accused of spreading “fake news,” and its hasty withdrawal by Prime Minister Narendra Modi following an outcry that the government was attempting to police the media a year before the country heads into general elections.
The government’s short-lived effort to clamp down on what it considered fake news this week turned the spotlight on a phenomenon that is growing in the world’s largest democracy, but whose origins in the digital era do not usually lie with mainstream media.
The Information and Broadcasting Ministry cited “increasing instances of fake news in various mediums, including print and electronic media” to justify the measure that would have denied access to government offices and press conferences to journalists accused of having “created or propagated” fake news.
The Editors Guild of India slammed the order, saying “it would have opened the door for frivolous complaints to harass journalists and organizations to fall in line.”
Media experts pointed out that the government order did not define what fake news was and did not target the alternative platforms that have proliferated.
And fact-checking experts questioned the government’s ability to tackle the problem, pointing out that political parties were often part it.
“For the government to project this as a mainstream media problem, is actually very smartly diverting attention that it is their party machinery, not just the ruling party, but opposition also, which is spreading stuff on various platforms which technology today allows you to,” said Jency Jacob, managing editor for boomlive.in, a fact-checking website that debunks fake stories.
How fake news spreads
Many senior journalists questioned the timing of the effort to curb fake news. A series of crucial state elections this year are expected to set the stage for general elections in 2019. But despite notching many victories in state polls since its impressive 2014 win, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party appears to have lost some momentum.
“The reversal has started. Somewhat bad press is coming up. This is overreaction to that,” said N. Bhaskars Rao, who heads the Center of Media Studies in New Delhi.
The BJP brushed aside such criticism, saying the quick withdrawal of the order at the personal intervention of the prime minister underlined the party’s commitment to press freedom.
Most fake news in India spreads via the social media platform WhatsApp and its reach has exploded as the spread of mobile phones increases internet access in the country. A handful of people who have started fact-checking websites to counter the impact of fake news say many people, especially in rural areas, often don’t question the sources on social networks or messaging apps or double check facts.
They have found that fake posts cover a wide spectrum, from targeting brands, to putting out false warnings on events such as cyclones and earthquakes, to messages on health.
Fact checkers can't keep up
Fake stories with political messaging on social media proliferate at election time, said Pratik Sinha, who started the website Altnews.
“We saw that during Gujarat elections, there was fakery from both ends, for example Photoshopped opinion polls, that kind of fake news is very prevalent,” he said, referring to a closely fought election in Modi’s home state in December.
Most worryingly, Sinha said, is that fake news often has the potential to exacerbate violence or religious and caste tensions. Altnews, he says, has busted many stories from people with right-wing ideologies.
Last month, the editor of the website Postcard News was held for publishing an erroneous story about Muslims attacking a Jain monk, who had been hurt in an accident. A year ago, rumors in a village about child abductors triggered the death of seven people.
Mainstream not immune
Jacob of boomlive.in says the mainstream media also is not always without blame as fact checking often becomes a casualty in the rush to be the first with a story. He called on them to spend more time proactively debunking fake news stories.
“They can’t shy away from it saying, ‘it is not our problem,’ which is what a lot of television channels and newspapers are doing,” he said.
Media bodies and fact checkers said while the phenomenon of fake news needs attention, unilateral intervention by the government is not the way to go.
“This is a serious issue. You don’t deal with it in a four-paragraph press release. They did not even define what fake news is,” Sinha said.
India is not the only Asian country where the spotlight has fallen on so-called fake news. Malaysia recently passed a law setting a maximum six-year jail term for offenders who spread fake news, and in Singapore, a parliamentary committee has reviewed possible measures to prevent “deliberate online falsehoods.”