Around February this year, a 16-year-old boy*, who lives near the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) office in Muzaffarpur, Bihar, created a website called Newspur.in. Sitting at his residence, the boy started reporting ‘news’ on the website based on information he claims he received from the RSS office, rumours circulating on social media, and sometimes his own imagination.
The son of a farmer, the boy who studies in Class XII at the Lalit Narayan Tirhut College in the city had one simple motive – to make money. He doesn’t care about objectivity and truth. He also seems to be unaware of the insidious effect some of this made-up stuff has on his readers, or the culture of ‘misinformation’ he is propagating through his activities. For him, the website is a way to make quick money. The student claims that running the website lands him an easy forty thousand rupees every month.
Consider the six-sentence-report the student wrote in March this year on news presenter Rohit Sardana being served 150 fatwas. That the news was false and rubbished by Sardana himself didn’t matter. Questioned about it, the student expressed surprise, “Is it so? Oh my God!” Even after learning that the news is false, the website didn’t take the report down. It still remains there – uncorrected, unverified, and masked as real news.
The student isn’t the only one who is engaged in creating this kind of content, now known to all of us as fake news. There are many more and they are all a part of the rapid rise of fake news we are witnessing in India today.
But what is fake news? And just who is writing all the false absurdities that land up in our newsfeed? The more important question – why? In order to find answers to these questions, YKA decided to track a few editors who run these websites to figure out why they do what they do.
In the 2017 edition of its stylebook, the American non-profit Associated Press created a new entry in its manual. Titled “fact checks, fake news”, the entry defines fake news as “the modern phenomenon of deliberate falsehoods or fiction masked as news circulating on the internet”.
Concerns about the insidious and far-reaching repercussions of this kind of content were first noticed during the 2016 US presidential elections, when Donald Trump became the country’s president. In fact, BuzzFeed News found that 20 top-performing false election stories that appeared during that time performed better than 20 top-performing true ones done by major news organisations.
The concerns became so big and pervasive by the end of November that internet giants Google and Facebook even announced explicit measures aimed at tackling the phenomenon.
Similar concerns have been raised in India too. From blogs announcing that UNESCO had declared ‘Jana Gana Mana’ the best national anthem to WhatsApp-rumours claiming that the new Rs. 2,000 note has a GPS chip, fake news infected even mainstream media, requiring institutions to step in and refute the claims.
In the USA, propagation of fake news seems to be closely entwined with the financial incentive or profit that comes with the engagement one gets from posting about a controversial figure. In India, things are more complicated. While money is an important incentive for some, mostly it is political ideology that’s driving the trend, making this phenomenon even more dangerous. That fake news is only a fraction of what gets published on these websites, makes it probably harder for their audience to sift fact from fiction.
Consider Anuj (31) and Garvit (30) Bhardwaj, brothers who started TheLotPot, another such news website, in October 2015 from Faridabad. While Anuj is an engineer-turned-manager in the IT industry, Garvit is a sales and marketing professional in the electrical industry.
When being interviewed for this story, both of them emphasised they were not running the site for the money. “Both of us are employed, but we also had our political thoughts and an ideology, right? We wanted to pursue that. This is the reason we started working on this (the website),” says Anuj Bhardwaj.
The duo started out with publishing cartoon strips on Facebook, and when that worked, they decided to have more versatile content. Garvit suggests that “monetary terms” with the website was a reason but Anuj reiterates that “the first motivation is (their) ideology”.
For Aishwarya S, who is an editor and writer with Postcard News, a website focussed on issues that concern the right-wing in India, it’s not just about running a website. “We thought it was a national movement which was required to expose the hypocrisy of politicians, media, and also some of the so-called intellectuals or, you’d say, people who call themselves secular or liberal,” she says over the phone. “Some people do say that we get funding from political parties but it’s not really true,” she adds.
While the Bhardwaj brothers said they were not for party politics, they defined “nationalism, justice for all, appeasement for none” as their political goals. For the 16-year-old from Muzaffarpur, on the other hand, it is Hindu welfare that’s a driving force apart from money.
The Bhardwaj brothers were also peeved about disputed harassment stories, citing the cases of Jasleen Kaur and the Rohtak sisters as reasons for their motivation to expose the media. It is true that in both Kaur’s case and in the case of the Rohtak sisters, journalists fell prey to easy conclusions without conclusive evidence. It is also true that websites like TheLotPot commit the same mistakes while publishing their stories and perhaps commit the mistake more often – ending up ‘manufacturing’ news.
“I get some stuff from those elder to me here (at the RSS office). Sometimes I have to make news on my own to get traffic. If some comments are made, I use them too (to make content),” the owner of Newspur says matter-of-factly.
For example, a few days ago, Newspur published a report claiming that Virat Kohli had supported the construction of a grand Ram temple in Ayodhya on Twitter – something that the owner conveniently made up on his own.
Others like TheLotPot and Postcard say they have their ‘own sources’ from ‘social media and on the ground’ for the news reports they write. “They might not be journalists but they are like-minded people who give us all those reports,” Garvit Bhardwaj says, trying to bolster his case.
He goes on to explain how the duo ended up meeting some sources in November 2015, when actor Anupam Kher led a rally against those who claimed that there was growing intolerance in the country. “So this is how you build your sources, your links. And there were many popular Facebook pages there and this is how you build your links,” the elder Bhardwaj says. Rumours circulating on WhatsApp seem to be a source for the websites, which sometimes turn them into ‘news’ without verification.
For example, the infamous WhatsApp demonetisation forward, which claimed that the Rs. 2,000 notes contained Nano GPS Chips, was picked up and published by TheLotPot as well as other major media organisations. The difference was that while mainstream media organisations reported it as a rumour that the RBI had denied, TheLotPot presented it as news.
Postcard News also claimed to have “reliable sources” and “many people on ground”. Over the phone, the Postcard editor told YKA that a team of 15 regular contributors write on the website, but refused to talk about about their source of information, asking us instead to believe they were indeed ‘reliable’.
But it is the same website that published a report, misleadingly marked in the ‘opinion’ category, saying that Congress is the fourth most corrupt political party in the world, citing BBC News Point, another site (not to be confused with the London-based media giant) that didn’t care much for disclosing its source either. Interestingly, the Postcard story begins by criticising Indian mainstream media for losing credibility “with their fake news and lies”.
While being interviewed for this report, TheLotPot founders cited an exposé they had done on Arvind Kejriwal. The story conflated a 2010 report by Hindustan Times (HT), which revealed that there was a secret illegal quota for children of staff members to get into IIT Kharagpur, and an RTI-reply to claim that the Delhi CM got into IIT illegally.
Only, TheLotPot took a leap of faith to reach to their conclusion, perhaps on the basis of a WhatsApp forward that was ultimately rebutted by IIT Kharagpur. The article was removed later, although Arjun Bhardwaj didn’t confirm if the website took it down on its own. But here’s the thing – by the time the page was archived, the story already had 30,000 shares. The damage had already been done.
Because once in your head, fake news has two effects. It first generates an emotional response, making you upset or angry at the subject of the news, in this case Kejriwal and AAP. But more importantly, research suggests that once this false story gets in your head, it continues to affect your beliefs and actions, even if you happen to later discover it is false. It’s actually doubly difficult to remove our biases once they are in place. And when they are against a political leader or party, it can possibly impact the way a country runs, or worse, the whole democratic set-up.
Fake news is not twisted news or harmless digital waste. It has real consequences, not only for the subject of the news themselves, but also for those who read it. Which is why, as Arjun Bhardwaj says, it is important to “see what kind of proof there is”. For those who fell for Bhardwaj’s stories, it is perhaps good advice to double-check that proof, and more so if the story confirms an already existing bias.
*Note: Name withheld because the person is a juvenile according to his college ID. He claims he is 18.