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Tea Leaves

In India, 'fake news' has deadly consequences

Spread of smartphones has taken rumor mongering to dangerous depths


At the turn of the millennium, I wrote a master's thesis at the London School of Economics on the revolutionary potential of mobile telephony. I had bought my first mobile phone only months before, and the potential of the technology to transcend spatial constraints had my mind spinning like a pinwheel in a tempest.

Starry eyed, I described how in countries with poor infrastructure like India, these phones could revolutionize livelihoods by liberating farmers from middlemen, allowing them to check prices for crops and get the best deals at markets.

Some 17 years later, the mobile revolution has transformed landscapes. For some years, India has had more mobile phones than toilets. In 2017, the smartphone user base surpassed 300 million following an 18% spike in shipments in 2016, according to Counterpoint, a market research company.

In September 2016, an ultracheap mobile network called Jio was launched, leading to a more than sixfold increase in mobile data use between June 2016 and March 2017, according to Mary Meeker's Internet Trends. There are now over 360 million internet users in India, the second-highest total after China. India has more than 200 million WhatsApp users, more than 241 million Facebook users and upward of 23 million Twitter accounts.

But the flood of ever-cheaper smartphones plugging millions of newly literate people into the digital economy has had an unintended side effect: an explosion in "fake news" and rumor-mongering. Millions of first-time phone users have proven especially susceptible to doctored photos and videos, incendiary claims, sensational predictions of natural calamities and bogus medical advice.

Frighteningly fast

Given the country's diverse and divided social composition, fake news inflames precarious relations between communities, castes and religions. And while rumors might be as old as society itself, social media applications allow them to spread at speeds that make damage control impossible.

Examples are legion. In May, a rumor circulating on WhatsApp about a gang of men allegedly abducting children in the central state of Jharkhand mobilized a large mob that eventually murdered seven innocent people.

Recently, as India's Supreme Court mulled a petition challenging a government decision to deport 40,000 Rohingya refugees fleeing persecution in Myanmar, fake videos and images of attacks against Hindus by supposed "Rohingya Islamic terrorists" provoked unfounded outrage on social media.

In another instance, an important public health initiative in the southern state of Kerala was stymied by WhatsApp and Facebook messages claiming that a measles and rubella immunization drive was part of an international conspiracy to reduce the population.

For semiliterate people in rural areas, Facebook and WhatsApp are often the only apps they have, downloaded by the vendors of their handsets and data plans. For them the devices carry authority, making the information they transmit innately trustworthy, much as former generations believed what they saw on television. For purveyors of fake news, this is fertile territory.

It is not just poor, rural folk who are susceptible. India's established media, politicians and actors have all been implicated. Earlier in 2017 mainstream TV channels circulated a story claiming that Man Booker-prize winning author Arundhati Roy had criticized the Indian army's actions in Kashmir, a disputed territory claimed by both India and Pakistan. Nationalists branded Roy a traitor, although she had made no such comments.

Newspapers have recently begun to feature full-page ads by Facebook teaching readers how to spot fake news. This is a response to an ongoing global debate about whether and how governments should compel social media companies to take more responsibility for the content shared on their platforms. The problem, though, is that governments are themselves guilty of spreading, and even manufacturing, fake news.

Alt News, an Indian website that fights fake news, has documented patterns of misinformation generated by the social media accounts of ministers and other leaders of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Even the government's Press Information Bureau was caught doctoring images on its website -- including one of Prime Minister Narendra Modi that showed him peering out of an airplane window, purportedly surveying flood damage in Chennai. The image was deleted after it was challenged. But the damage that fake news causes is not so easily removed.

Pallavi Aiyar is a Tokyo-based author and member of the World Economic Forum's Global Future Council on the Future of Information and Entertainment.

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