10/07/2017 1:53 PM IST | Updated 10/07/2017 1:53 PM IST

If Politicians Truly Cared About India, They'd First Tackle The Menace Of Fake News

Fact checker portals have been pushed into overdrive in this David vs Goliath struggle.

Pacific Press via Getty Images
A group of activist participates in a candle light vigil against recent communal violence at Baduria of North 24 Parganas in Kolkata.

"I have all respect for Facebook but not for Fakebook." That's what Mamata Banerjee said as she described the fake photographs that have been used to inflame passions after the communal disturbances in Basirhat and Baduria in Bengal.

It is no surprise at all that mischief mongers were fishing in troubled waters. At a time when an India-Pakistan cricket match leads to a flurry of fake photographs of Muslims celebrating Pakistan's victory, a communal disturbance is ripe for fake posts, morphed photographs and old images packaged as breaking news.

This round's roll-call of shame includes:

1. A still from a Bhojpuri film Aurat Khilona Nahin showing a goon stripping a woman being passed off as an on-the-ground report from Basirhat.

2. An image of a bleeding couple was circulated as the hapless parents of the teenager whose Facebook post triggered the violence. It was actually an image from Bangladesh. It was shared by Gita S Kapoor, VP Mahila Morcha BJP, and someone followed by the prime minister.

3. A photograph of a burning vehicle was sent out as part of a #SaveBengal protest campaign. That image was from the Gujarat riots of 2002 and used in the New York Times.

4. After the death of Kartik Ghosh post-Baduria, the photograph of one Kartik Chandra Methia was shared as a picture of Ghosh. That was from a case in 2014 and five men were arrested for it. "Seeing the similarity in the names, Hindutva handles seized this opportunity to circulate an old picture to fan an already tense situation," writes AltNews.

5. BJP IT head Amit Malviya posted an image of five killed, eight injured in Nadia in Bengal without saying it happened in 2015.

Fake news is not news anymore. But a few things were somewhat different this time around.

The state government clearly understood that the fake images going viral in social media were not just a nuisance but posed real danger. Kolkata Police arrested Bhabatosh Chatterjee of Sonarpur for morphing the Bhojpuri still and passing it off as Baduria violence to spread hate. Chatterjee had kept the image on his site even after it was revealed to be a movie still. He had reposted it with an inflammatory message saying "Aparna Sen where are you? 'Sons of the religion of peace' are stripping Hindu women. Place – Baduria." Filmmaker Sen had recently spoken at a #NotInMyName rally in Kolkata.

But Chatterjee is just a drop in the bucket, small fry in the battle against fake news. There are far bigger fish out there fomenting far more sinister trouble.

Vijeta Malik, Haryana state executive member of the BJP, Bharat Gaurav award winner from 2014, shared the Facebook post of the woman being assaulted.

BJP MLA H Raja Singh said: "Hindus in Bengal should respond to people involved in communal violence as Hindus in Gujarat did. Otherwise, Bengal will soon turn into Bangladesh."

ALSO READ:Basirhat Will Slowly Go Back To Normal, If Politicians Stop Fanning Communal Hate

Nupur Sharma, BJP spokesperson from Delhi, shared the 2002 Gujarat picture with the rallying cry "Speak-up before it is already too late! Join us at 5 pm today at Jantar Mantar #SaveBengal #SaveHindus."

Now these posts were not created by Malik or Sharma. They can claim the forwarded them in good faith, upset by the news of what was happening in Bengal. That is entirely plausible. In the day and age it is easy to fall for fake images as long as they fit our confirmation bias.

The question is, once they have been exposed as fake, what do you do?

Take Nupur Sharma. She had the fake image as her pinned tweet. After many people informed her that it was fake and tagged the Kolkata police, she replaced it with a different collage of battered vehicles. She shared it with the caption "Since trolls spent a sleepless night covering-up Basirhat violence, sharing media pics of the riots. Hope they report this to @WBPolice too."

It shows simple defiance of truth. There's no hint of regret in using an old picture (and a riot when the BJP was in charge no less). This was not a wake-up call of any sort for her. Rather those who pointed out the truth are dismissed as trolls.

That shows something far more alarming than falling for a hoax or an old picture. It shows simple defiance of truth. There's no hint of regret in using an old picture (and a riot when the BJP was in charge no less). This was not a wake-up call of any sort for her. Rather those who pointed out the truth are dismissed as trolls. She told the media: "I received a flyer from organizers of Save Bengal protests and put it out. This has woken up people in Lutyen's Delhi who have maintained a stoic silence until now."

For her the end justified the means. The organizers used the same picture as the backdrop for their rally.

Vijeta Malik quietly deleted her Bhojpuri post without any apology for her part in spreading fake news. Gita S. Kapur also deleted her post of the teenager's "parents" but the screenshot is saved here.

The news from Baduria was bad enough. What's even more alarming is that there has been no word of condemnation from the BJP about its own elected officials and spokespersons blatantly using or forwarding morphed pictures and old images to fan the flames. No one has asked them to check the veracity of the images they are sending out from their official handles.

The erudite Rajya Sabha MP Swapan Dasgupta wrote a piece for Daily Pioneer where he said: "Offensive or even 'blasphemous' postings on social media is a familiar problem the world over. India too has had its share of posts that are calculated to offend, anger and disgust." Yet Dasgupta shared an image of the #SaveBengal rally with that same Gujarat image still displayed as its banner poster. Is that not abetting the spread of fake news "calculated to offend, anger and disgust"?

BOOM FactCheck has 10.1 K followers. SM Hoax Slayer has 13.6K. Nupur Sharma alone has 88.5K. Gita S Kapur has 403K followers. You do the math.

Fact checker portals have been pushed into overdrive and done yeomen's work countering these fake posts. But it is a David vs Goliath struggle.

BOOM FactCheck has 10.1 K followers. SM Hoax Slayer has 13.6K. Nupur Sharma alone has 88.5K. Gita S Kapur has 403K followers. You do the math.

This is not to say Mamata Banerjee's government is necessarily correct when it says the Basirhat violence is a conspiracy by outsiders and BJP to try and impose President's rule in Bengal. Nor does this mean, the Trinamool government is justified in blocking BJP leaders from going to the trouble spots. Ashok Malik writes in the Asian Age: "Ms Banerjee's wooing of the Muslim vote is legitimate, but her methods have been clumsy and dangerous" and the "crude Muslim mobilization" is leading to a "backlash".

He worries that "Trinamul and its leadership have unleashed toxic forces they can no longer curb." Unfortunately the slew of fake posts, fanned and forwarded by some holding official posts in the BJP, or handles followed by the Prime Minister, are also unleashing toxic forces that they can no longer curb or more worryingly, appear to have no desire to curb. The backlash is being forwarded.

Recently SM Hoax Slayer created a poster that reads:

"Forwarded as Received" is a coward's shield. Be sure or ignore. Don't be part of killing a human because of that one rumour you forwarded to many."

If they truly cared about the wellbeing of the nation, it's time that ALL our political parties made their spokespersons swear by that. That won't end fake news or snuff out all trolls but it would be a worthwhile beginning.