The fact that even the Panchatantra and the Aesop’s Fables have a story about the shepherd boy who cried wolf when there was no wolf, underlines the fact that the phenomenon of fake news is not something ultra modern or a product of the internet age. However, to discuss the cry-wolves of our times, Nitin Pai, founder of Takshashila brought together personalities of contrasting backgrounds and competing tones for the last panel discussion at the Bangalore Literature Festival 2018. In attendance were award winning journalist best known for her Bofors investigation and editor-in-chief of thenewsminute.com – Chitra Subramaniam, Paris born journalist and author who has been South Asia correspondent for Le Figaro, one of France’s leading newspapers – François Gautier, Editor of The Hindu – Mukund Padmanabhan, Editor of scroll.in – Naresh Fernandes, Founder and Editor of AltNews – Pratik Sinha, and Sreenivasan Jain, Managing Editor of New Delhi Television (NDTV).
In order to set the context, Nitin asked each panelist about what defined fake news. Naresh opined with an example that while misinformation could be an error of judgement, disinformation with malice would count as fake news. Pratik of the AltNews gave the example of the Amritsar train tragedy wherein a fake narrative had been peddled about the driver’s religion to create social unrest and stressed upon the fact that fake news was affecting people of all ages, including children. Chitra joined the discussion and asserted that the phrase ‘fake news’ was an oxymoron and according to her there was only good journalism and then there was bad journalism. She also added that fake news happens when people with motives manufacture events and news.
Sreenivasan Jain kept the central government and the party in power at the centre at the centre of his attack and went on to say, “I believe that the only way to solve a problem is to first identify the problem. Fake news is not just lying in the dark corners of the internet but the central power itself plays a game of fake news by churning out propagandist theories and cherry picked data. These institutions, be it the government or the party in power have mainstreamed what was on the fringe.” He claimed that love jihad, scare mongering in the name of cows were part of this fake news propaganda. François, on the other hand, maintained that the word ‘fake news’ was too strong a word. Journalists have strong opinions and they pick stories and derive from them according to their opinions. He cited the example of the Nun rape case at Jhabua where mainstream media rushed to point fingers at the Hindu right wing groups but soon it was found that there were tribals and christians involved. François also cautioned people against the impulse of demonising the politicians because they were the the elected representatives in the country.
Nitin Pai further wanted the panel to explore the doors where fake news could be checked and threw the question to Naresh. Naresh mentioned that the government was trying to bring in some technological solutions to this menace but that wasn’t going to help. The session grew hotter by second and Sreenivasan provided a counter to François by saying that to criticize politician is not demonising him and to criticize the BJP doesn’t mean one is anti-Hindu. For him, the fake news machinery run by the government itself is the most dangerous one when compared to the fake news being peddled on whatsapp. Chitra had a contrarian point of view and asserted that she had lived through congress regimes and remembered how she and her family were harrassed with spread of falsehoods for ten years. She also claimed that while the word ‘fringe’ gets quoted a lot, the lot on the stage was the actual fringe which didn’t really understand India and how India thought. According to her, journalists must earn the right to be read like the politicians earn the right to lead.
François added his own perception of the Indian media and said that the Indian people did not have much respect for the the Indian media. Also, according to him, most of the media establishments have been left leaning in India. He underlined the importance of his views because he was born a catholic and unlike other people who parrot what they had heard from their older generations, he had learnt India first hand. Nitin went deeper into the subject and asked the panel if there were prejudices of people playing out as well. Pratik explained the importance of giving due attention to the fake news happening on whatsapp. “For rural areas, the influential people do affect opinions of the common people because they own smartphones and have access to internet and news”, added Pratik.
The session concluded with an attempt to fix the accountability question. Mukund agreed that Whatsapp was one of the major vectors for fake news and as such should not be ignored or downplayed. Also, not only does fake news affect the ignorant or gullible but also the intelligent and the informed lot. He maintained that the damage done by fake news was much worse than the redressal options like retraction etc.. Journalists and media houses must learn to apologize more often because there is no shame attached with it if one makes a mistake”, opined Mukund.
The session came to a close with a wide array of questions from the audience members and seemed to reinforce the idea of diversity in discourse which the Bangalore Literature Festival stands for.