In Conversation: On the Misinformation That Led to a Journalist’s Arrest
The team discusses pressing events that say something about our culture, and why it matters. Today, we discuss how fake news becomes real news.
Mohammed Zubair, a journalist and noted fact-checker who has spotlighted the half-truths and misinformation around government narratives, was arrested for a curious thing this week. It was a tweet from 2018, referencing a movie shot that mocked a hotel named “Honeymoon,” spelled as “Hanuman” instead. To a country with a majority Hindu population, this was grounds for police attention. On Monday he was arrested on charges of allegedly hurting religious sentiments following a complaint by a social media user. He is currently in police custody, at least until July 1st.
What is notable though is that Mr. Zubair has valiantly questioned misinformation and disinformation at every step of the ruling government’s regime. The arrest echoes our sentiment towards fake news too – about what makes us vulnerable to lies, why we believe fiction over fact, and why misinformation is a crisis we’re only beginning to understand.
RN: A look at the facts of Zubair’s arrest makes the head spin – but do the facts even matter anymore? The striking thing about this incident is that the arrest of a fact-checker is one that does not concern itself with too many facts – showing the extent of our nation’s downslide. This is a case riding on pure sentiment, and sentiment has almost exclusively driven this nation’s politics for a while. But only the sentiments of a few matters – in this case, an anonymous Twitter handle proclaiming themselves to be a “Hanuman bhakt.” By any stretch of the imagination, one Twitter account does not a “community” make. But do the facts even matter anymore? Generous dollops of political gaslighting over the years have constituted the nation’s diet – and in the time it takes to perform the meticulous work of disproving each lie, many more crop up like fungi spores. Before long there’s an impossible, labyrinthine cluster of lies and deception – by then, the damage is already done, and sentiments are cemented even against the facts.
How does one go about addressing something of that scale? And yet, that’s exactly what Zubair endeavored to do. Does fact-checking change our ideas of the truth? It could, when enough of us commit to it as a political project. Sentiments, like a raging fire, can consume and destroy everything in their path if left unchecked. It’s why it needs to be fought not with fire, but with a resolute stand on the side of facts. Zubair’s arrest doesn’t signal the end of fact-checking as truth-telling – it could, and must, be well the beginning of it. To the question of whether facts matter, then, the answer isn’t just that they do – it’s that they have to. We don’t have a choice.
SK: It is moments like these that truly sting. The arrest has a political context years in the making, even an institutional one that people like Mohammed Zubair have spent time and energy to unravel. Look at the lies, look at the fabrications that rest in front of you. All the mental labor of dissecting through tall tales is being done for us. Still, we find ourselves in the midst of another epidemic, one where misinformation and disinformation are the entirety of our realities. We know India was the top source of social media misinformation during Covid19. What is it about India that makes people more likely to spread rumors and fake news? The arrest in question was triggered when a newly-formed Twitter account with a following of one quoted his tweet. What could lead one anonymous Twitter account to create such mischief? What are the cultural kernels that fuel this fire?
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On some level, people spread falsehoods because they truly believe them to be the truth. Shouldn’t people be wary of the “news” they come across and address it critically? No, viral untruths get more credibility as they earn likes, shares, and retweets, pushing and fighting their way on top of news feeds. And if something is shared so widely and so far, it must surely carry a modicum of truth? The self-image that resides within all of us is not of any moral wrongdoing, but of providing a civil service. Forget humility and critical thinking; questions of evidence and curiosity have also died a slow death with this misinformation overload.
A more intrinsic explanation, something science is slowly catching up with, is that consuming and sharing misinformation feeds into our identity, our very personhood. It makes sense: we’re people with our individual sets of biases and prejudices, and any conversation online that seems to validate our beliefs, irrespective of how bigoted they are, gets our stamp of approval. And Indians are a deeply prejudicial people; we are fractured along the lines of caste, class, gender, ethnicities, and bodies. There is some research to show that this cabal of falsehoods also does wonders in shaping a sense of belonging and community. Age, political affiliations, and identity positions all decide who is more likely to share misinformation. Just because someone from their ideological party believes something, they must too. Interestingly, a 2018 study found that supporters of the ruling BJP are more likely to share fake news.
We’re grieving the loss of press freedom, security, and community, but as a culture, we’re losing our faith in credible facts. There is also a worrying realization couched between all of this: for people and their worth, misinformation seems to gives more than it takes away. That is a deeply unsettling idea that reminds me of T.S. Eliot’s poem. How does the world end? “Not with a bang but a whimper,” a whimper of untruths.
DR: For more than 70% of Indians, smartphones are the new newspapers — with many of us accessing news through social media. Living in the digital age, these statistics are hardly surprising. Perhaps, technology has made it easier even to stay updated with what’s happening around the world — not only setting aside our former dependence on the 24-hour-news cycles, which culminated with the morning newspapers, but also ensuring that we don’t have to wait for broadcast journalists to make it to the ground and set up their equipment so we can finally access live feeds. Now, a simple, effortless tweet is all we need to stay updated.
However, I can’t help but wonder about the two-fold problem this scenario presents. First, we can no longer choose the news (or its version) that we would like to see; algorithms make that choice for us. Second, a round-the-clock bombardment of our screens with the “latest developments” of stories we’re hooked on to has induced a form of crisis fatigue that is leading many to gradually shut out news itself for the sake of self-preservation. In a post-truth age, where an “infodemic” is already raging, the dangers of making social media our source of news, then, can be unprecedented — either relegating us into echo chambers that only serve to tighten our blindfolds than enlighten us, or forcing us to voluntarily shield ourselves from facts to protect our mental health. At the same time, with memes, too, growing in popularity and rapidly assuming the form of “information” than what it was meant to be — a source of humor to lighten our spirits amid the grim reality we live in — perhaps, it’s time to gradually disengage from social media when it comes to getting “facts.”
Actively pursuing social media as a means to socialize, than using it for something it was never designed for, might be the only way to restore balance in the universe. Otherwise, it is becoming increasingly difficult to ensure we stay updated — without getting either overwhelmed, or worse still, manipulated.