Rumours, Fake News, and Propaganda


Recently, the Indian government proposed a new legislation on “fake news” and declared that journalists who were found to have written “fake news” would lose their official accreditation, perhaps permanently. The proposal faced a swift and strong backlash because the Indian news media saw the new rules as an attack on the press. It was also pointed out that the amendment was released mere months before campaigning was set to begin for national elections in 2019. Moreover, organizations like the Press Council of India and the News Broadcasters Association already exist to ensure press accountability. Smriti Irani was at the forefront of this new legislation. But after it was questioned for being an attack on the freedom of the press, Narendra Modi intervened and revoked it just the day after it was proposed.

One aspect of public opinion which has become the focus of attention is the transmission of rumours. A rumour is a rapidly spreading report unsubstantiated by facts. The spreading of a rumour is a form collective behaviour which may be true, false or a combination of truth and falsehood. Much of casual conversation consists of rumour mongering. From neighbours, a narration of stories to the state of the nation, all topics attract interesting and disturbing rumours. Its origin is usually difficult to trace out or verify. Its method of transmission is also a curious one. Most of the times it is transmitted outside the formal communication systems of television, government announcements, radio, newspapers, and the likes. However, in today’s world, with the growing reach of the internet and burgeoning social media platforms rumours spread like wildfire. The number of times news about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s death has gone viral on social media bears testimony to this.

Rumours normally rise in situations in which people are deprived of information or when they don’t trust the official information they are given. Thus, a rumour can be regarded as a substitute for hard news. Rumours can ruin reputations, discredit causes and undermine morale. Hence the manipulation is a common practice as propaganda. Propaganda is very often thought as an attempt to win people over to an unpopular cause or to influence them to follow a generally disapproved course of action. But actually, the purpose of propaganda can be quite varied. It can be generally understood as a means of influencing others, often towards a desirable end.

We can understand the rise of “fake news” as the outspread of rumours. It is a collective behaviour in which we are all complicit. It manifests itself in the form of news which is shared through seemingly benign WhatsApp forwards or on social media platforms, without any credibility from the source of its emanation and any introspection on the part of the receiver who would again blindly circulate it. It is the way of the world in our times where accountability is at stake and when personal beliefs thwart logical facts. Once a rumour starts circulating, it changes continuously as people consciously or unconsciously distort it. Moreover, once rumours spread, it can’t be easily dispelled by truthful pronouncements. As it has been rightly said, when you keep repeating a life, it starts sounding like the truth.

In this light, one may think that the legislation on “fake news” should be seen as a positive step. However, that is not the case. Such a ban had recently floated in Malaysia as well when the government passed an anti “fake news” bill right before its elections. Many critics saw it as an obvious “political weapon” to stifle dissent. Although such a law against “fake news” couldn’t be ratified in India, this reeks off an obvious propaganda by the ruling dispensation ahead of the 2019 elections because there were no criteria stated for evaluating what would be counted under “fake news”. The BJP’s track record hasn’t been great in handling criticism from the press. There is a history of how anything found to be remotely critical of governmental policies, which could potentially tarnish the image of the Modi government, has been silenced or curtailed. If this legislation would have been passed, it would mean that the government could virtually control news media in India. Thus, the fourth pillar of democracy would have been shattered. Nevertheless, one can say that this entire issue has at least positively impacted the ‘image’ of the Prime Minister and contributed to the “NaMo Brand” which now seems to protect freedom of speech.

– Contributed by Ankita

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