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Who can kill the fake news monster?

August 11, 2018 12:06 IST

'There are sound commercial reasons to hope for the development of 'anti-fake news networks',' says Devangshu Datta.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/

Illustration: Dominic Xavier/

The spate of lynchings of suspected kidnappers is a horrifying but logical outcome of the development of efficient fake news networks.

Fake news is a sophisticated, highly competitive industry. Anybody who can build an efficient fake new network reaps some rewards, and those rewards can be huge.

The content disseminated doesn't really matter -- it's the speed at which that content can be propagated.

The fake news phenomenon went mainstream around the time of the 2008 United States presidential election. The leading lights of America's right wing decided that the best way to tackle Barack Obama's rise was to claim a. that he was a closet Muslim and b. that he was born outside the US.

A lot of time and trouble went into assiduously spreading those 'theories'. The individual who is currently the president of the US was one of those who spent years repeating those lies.


Fake news was soon established as an excellent way to mobilise certain shades of public opinion.

Alongside Facebook, Twitter and instant messaging services such as WhatsApp, Signal and Telegram acted as force multipliers.

Side by side with the generation of scurrilous nonsense, smart fake news purveyors also worked to discredit genuine news services.

The logic was, if no news could be trusted, the fake news would become as credible as the truth.

The fake news industry has been substantially aided in its efforts by the bubble effect that characterises social media.

Social media creates 'opinion-bubbles'. People gravitate to online companions whose opinions are palatable. They consume only the news and other content that they enjoy.

This creates and reinforces opinion bubbles.

These bubbles enable social media users to obliterate the opinions they find unpalatable from their consciousness.

Going by surveys and polls, few people can distinguish between the true and fake news or even tell the difference between fact and opinion.

The bubbles became more impenetrable over time as more and more people shift to social media platforms for their primary news consumption.

The social media phenomenon has also created a new, more thick-skinned breed of political operators.

In earlier eras, politicians were somewhat circumspect when they lied in public. If one was caught lying publicly, a politician could suffer some erosion of credibility within his or her power base.

In the social media era of today, it doesn't matter because the bubble prevents the power base from learning that their favoured politician has lied.

As a result, the lies have become more and more blatant because the social media-savvy political operators don't care if they are caught.

At worst, a lie will just be written off as just another jumla (or a political gimmick).

In this era, when political parties invest capital in creating, enabling and empowering fake news networks, it also behoves the wannabe 'influencers' to demonstrate an ability to disseminate fake news efficiently.

The rewards for a fake news influencer can range from low-grade pay-per-tweet revenue to whatever they can extract from proximity to the folks in power.

As such, it makes sense for a wannabe influencer to demonstrate the power of his or her fake news network by trending some nonsense.

This could be harmless nonsense like 'the sky is green' to toxic gossip like 'this well-known TV anchor is married to that well-known economist' to vicious stuff like 'your next door neighbour secretly eats beef' or the truly insane rumours like 'the chap in the green shirt is a baby lifter'.

The influencer's ability to make the rumour go viral is the ultimate proof that the influencer is worth deploying.

What does it matter if somebody is lynched? Indeed, perverse as it may be, that might increase the influencer's market value.

There are no easy ways to reverse this rot.

Trying to do so involves using the same tools that fake news networks deploy, and also learning how to penetrate social media bubbles with counter-propaganda.

Of course, there would be rewards for somebody who figured out how to do this efficiently.

So there are sound commercial reasons to hope for the development of 'anti-fake news networks'.

It will be instructive to count the bodies in the next phase of this war.

Devangshu Datta
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