Donald Trump has repeated the term ‘fake news’ often enough to make it sound meaningless when you hear it now. Some of us (this writer included) are guilty of using the term ironically to refer to anything that makes us uncomfortable. And in doing so, we are serving the purpose POTUS wants us to, that is desensitizing us to the word to that point that we no longer respond to it seriously. Trump, in his various attacks at the media, has resorted to using derogatory adjectives, outright abuses, and has even gone as far as to call them ‘enemy of the people.’ This seems a very American problem which we have no stakes over. But the menace of actual fake news affects us as much as, if not more than America or the West.
There have been multiple cases of misinformed WhatsApp forwards leading to mob lynchings loss of life. While these are extreme cases of wrong information having disastrous consequences, this isn’t the only kind of problem we have with ‘news’ today. Traditional media channels (and their online portals) are held to almost no standard of accountability. Stopping just short of fake news, they make mountains out of molehills, draw parallels where there are none, and hold media trials on citizens they absolutely shouldn’t do, and even go as far as accusing them of treason. As media channels shift rapidly to either side of the political spectrum (more heavily towards one side), there is a discernable change in the aggression with which they approach anything incompatible with their ideology. Some of the nation’s most well-known TV personalities have made their name by silencing opinions and showing the country they can shout louder than anyone else on the panel.
People have been writing about this problem creeping into Indian media for nearly a decade now “There are thoughtful media persons who bemoan the tendency to sensationalism and obsession with trivia and Television Rating Points (TRP) at the expense of honest reportage of the events and issues that matter to most of the people. More recently, there have been careful investigations into – and shocking exposes of – the growing phenomenon of “paid news”, which increasingly mocks at any pretense of objective and honest reporting.” (Frontline Aug 28 – Sep 10 2010)
The issue with rampant misinformation isn’t new to us except perhaps in scale. With no proper mechanism to hold media accountable, the onus is on us to vary of our sources of information. Our social media works on algorithms that can literally house us in alternate realities based on what it figures our interests and biases are. Add that to an already unaccountable media and almost every significant piece of news we read could be inaccurate.
Honest journalism in our country could literally come at the cost of one’s life. We’ve had at least 12 documented cases of journalists being killed in the past year alone; this is excluding dozens of other deaths that happened under suspicious circumstances. “In 2016, the International Federation of Journalists listed India as the eighth most dangerous country for journalists” (The Independent). India is ranked 136th among 180 countries in World Press Freedom Index (2017) Neighbouring countries like Bhutan (84), Nepal (100), Maldives (117), Afghanistan (120) and Myanmar (131) ensure better press freedom for their citizens than India does (Hindustan Times). As an almost natural consequence, “self-censorship is growing in the mainstream media and journalists are increasingly the targets of online smear campaigns by the most radical nationalists, who vilify them and even threaten physical reprisals.” (Reporters sans frontiers).
As private citizens engaged in different endeavors, the best we can do is to scrutinize anything we read that could have far-reaching consequences and not hesitate to call people or entities out for spreading misinformation and hate. Refusing to come to terms with the fact that our sources are not dependable as a given is vital. While we cannot yet imagine how it would be to have unbiased and accountable media, we can, in good faith, exercise due diligence in how we approach the news.