Earlier this week, in Bihar’s Chhapra district, as part of the recent demonetisation drive, income tax officials conducted raids on several doctors. One of them was Dr RB Sinha (65). The officials reportedly found unaccounted cash worth Rs 6 crore. The stress of losing all his hard earned cash caused him to suffer a cardiac arrest. He died. Tragic.

Except, it isn’t. Dr Sinha did not die. And I-T officials didn’t break down his door. None of this happened. Not a single word is true. But it was reported in local papers.

Fake news is by no means a new phenomenon, or a recent invention. But thanks to the rise of social media platforms, it is giving real news a run for its credibility. It has turned out to be scarily climactic in the demonetisation drive last week, during the US Presidential election before that, and during the Brexit referendum a few months earlier. The top 20 fake news stories outperformed real news at the end of the 2016 Presidential campaign.

To the heady mix of human psychology, partisan interests, and even malicious intent, if you add a bit of tech (read algorithms), you get a lethal weapon to sway public opinion. Since last week, several news stories have made their way into mainstream media, brazenly fake and loosely based on viral WhatsApp forwards. A Surat businessman, who allegedly surrendered Rs 6,000 crore. The news went viral on social platforms, only to be debunked later. Then, there’s the case of the fake Rs 2,000 note, found in Chikmangaluru in Karnataka, which made its way to Twitter thanks to a television journalist, only to be outed as a color photocopy of the original.

Before anyone could sniff it was misinformation, the fake news took a life of its own.

“What makes it difficult to control is that social media eliminates the barrier to entry, while at the same time eliminates quality control, so that untreated sewage ends up competing with purified water,” says a New Delhi-based journalist, a foreign national employed at a large international news organisation. “From there on, as it appears, it becomes about who shouts the loudest, trolls most aggressively and has the amplifier of a big media pipe.”

And, of course, the value migrates to the aggregators and away from the news outlets, who then join the race to the bottom because they can’t afford to back good reporting.

Anant Goenka, executive director, Indian Express

There’s a lot of confusion, and rumours do come up every now and then, and inevitably make their way to news websites, but I still think that it’s largely a platform issue

Anant Goenka, executive director of the Indian Express Group says, it is largely a platform issue.

AUTHOR

Venkat Ananth

Venkat is currently in his tenth year in journalism. Prior to The Ken, he was Deputy Content Editor at Mint as part of the newspaper’s digital team. He also wrote in-depth features on the business of sport for the newspaper. His earlier assignments include Yahoo! (as a columnist) and the Hindustan Times, where he began his career. Born in Mumbai, Venkat holds a Bachelor of Mass Media (Journalism) degree from SIES College of Arts, Science and Commerce, Mumbai and a Master of Arts degree in International Studies from Goldsmiths, University of London. He currently resides in New Delhi, where he moved nearly five years ago.

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