WHAT are the real implications of the entrenched era of Fake News, or Fake Information (FI)? How did it begin and where will it end? How can it harm society in general, apart from its immediate impacts on the country’s polity and economy? To answer such critical questions, it is important to understand the two facets of FI. The first is an initial vacuum, which resulted from media’s abdication of its responsibility—to put the people and public interest first. The mainstream media forgot about what the common man wanted to know, and the masses vanished from the mediated information. These trends were visible in India within the first decade of this century. The ‘Janata’ hit back. It extracted its revenge, and used and misused the growing and powerful social media to put itself first. Most information now stems from the public, and the latter took charge. Information media became truly democratised.
Slowly, the manipulators of information, especially politicians and their advisors, realised the potential of social media to further their interests. This happened in the run-up to the 2014 elections. It turned out to be the beginning of a new era of FI. The politicians used it to criticise their opponents, plant stories in their favour, and create an atmosphere of ‘Information Haziness’, so that the voters remained confused, yet got swayed by FI. As apps and platforms such as WhatsApp, Twitter, FB and Snapchat took off, the politicians found it easy to instantly connect with millions of voters. FI’s success was not only dictated by the availability of technology tools and manipulations in the virtual world, but also by its ability to appear credible. New researches prove that FI can achieve two objectives. For the believers, information that adds to their beliefs releases chemicals that add to their state of happiness. Hence, they are prone to believe the wrong information. For the non-believers, “repeated statements (or illusory truths) are easier to process, and subsequently perceived to be more truthful than new statements”. Both sections are gripped by the proven effects of “knowledge neglect”, i.e. “the failure to rely on stored knowledge, in the face of fluent processing experiences”. FI became the ‘Information Tsar”.
Unfortunately, today FI has become the 21st century demon. It is not even serving the interests of the original political manipulators and masters as everyone and anyone now resorts to it. The democratisation of information resulted in a further democratisation of FI. The politicians are now worried about the immediate future, their future, which can as easily be shattered by FI, as they did with their opponents in the recent past. Societal peace now rests on shaky ground, and can be disturbed by the flimsiest of an incident that can be hyped into gigantic proportions through FI. In a more confused post-truth world, where no one knows what to believe or not and no one knows the truth anymore, both the propagators and receivers of FI have no control over what can happen, will happen, and in what shape.
The government’s responsibility today isn’t to check the proliferation of FI, and take action against the users. For good governance, it needs to delve into the deeper aspects of the FI syndrome, and tackle the problem at the root level. The reason: this new demon can unleash forces that can decimate the security of the country. FI may win votes, and elections, and become a tool to capture and regain political power, but it can tear apart the nation’s social fabric, and shear civilisation connects between classes and masses, castes and communities, and religions. It can let loose a torrent of centrifugal forces that may rip the country apart.