New Delhi July 14  The spread of misinformation has weaponised social media to an extent that it is more effective than airstrikes in destroying the target, in this case legitimate news

The truth is hard to find. The truth is hard to know. The truth is more important now than ever.” So goes the tagline of the New York Timescommercial. The paper, quite unconventionally, bought expensive air time during the Oscars to tell the world it stood true to its grain and was a victim instead, following the Donald Trumpcamp’s allegations of purveying fake news and by extension misrepresenting the US President. What it sadly tells us is that the social media has been weaponised to such an extent that it is more effective than airstrikes in disseminating propaganda and burying legitimate news like quicksand. Anyway, fake news traded freely did shape Trump’s fortunes and has since then been used by activists, propagandists and thought police to curate a tide of opinion that influences every aspect of global polity. By the time the truth is dug up, gasping and breathing, the falsity has acquired a life as a governmental policy or treaty.

Perhaps we, too, would not have discussed this now had not the orchestrated mind control game of propagandists and influencers cost us dearly. Tweaked videos of child-lifting, which actually were pinched from a campaign film on kidnapping of minors, rolled like wildfire on Whatsapp and led to a wave of lynching across the country. About 20 odd innocents, mostly vagrants and the dispossessed, died on suspicion of being child lifters, smugglers and what not simply on the grounds of looking shabby and being social misfits. The killing, which actually flamed up discussion boards, was that of two Assamese youth in Karbi Anglong, their talking point clearly defined by their urban origins, and the hit-back justified on their outsider status in an insular, tribal space. More doctored news videos of rape and abuse are doing the rounds with the perpetrators being attributed as belonging to minorities and fringes, mischievously playing up political polarities in a human tragedy. Sometimes similar videos have done the rounds with different narratives. Perhaps, this agenda-driven interpretation of news beyond just facts and figures is one of the reasons why even mainstream media was kept away from the intricacies of the Thai cave rescue while it happened.

If media data analysts at MIT are to be believed, then a false story reaches 1,500 people six times quicker than a true story does, the ones on politics topping the list. Even among verified accounts on Twitter for example, fake news and opinions are 70 per cent more likely to get retweeted. The misinformation then gets validated by an implicit beehive endorsement of it. This mass consumption gives it a commercial value that blurs the lines between public service and disservice. Take the case of a small-time marketer Eric Tucker, who had 40 Twitter followers but whose lame tweet about paid protesters being used to demonstrate against Trump, fuelled a conspiracy theory so potent that even the Trump camp used it as a campaign tool. The hits meant that it rolled happily across all social media platforms, drawing high volume traction and the moolah from associated advertising related to “shares” and “likes.” Many Russian and Balkan youth, who peddled sensationalist right-wing propaganda, even paying platforms to boost shares in the run-up to the US election, got rich the same way. The problem with “shares” and “forwards” is that it creates an entangled circuit making it extremely difficult to trace the original, faceless perpetrator who probably has assumed another virtual identity and is weaving another virtual reality.

But what of receptors, considered technologically qualified? However, in India, one must remember that tele-density doesn’t automatically translate to tele-literacy. News, for this vast gullible majority, is, in a swipe and click, as good as the last product added to a shopping cart online, with no time or intent to make a judgment call. In fact, most of India’s young voters under 25, educated or uneducated, are consuming even mainline news through social media platforms and digital apps. This migration of loyalty has meant that the trust that a newspaper masthead had taken years — this paper has incubated it over 100 years — to develop has been transferred to a flat platform where individual identity has no stand-out value, mass acceptance has. Fake news further gains credibility because it comes couched in the written word or a neatly edited video with voiceover, which in the visual memory of the current generation has the comforting assurance of reality. Trust also comes from known people in your eco-system sharing the information. Users get more easily co-opted into blind faith if the report comes from peers, family, icons or people they follow, shushing them into a belief that the latter would not circulate something air-headed on their feed as it would compromise their intelligence and worth on a viral public platform. With a valid endorsement, young users particularly, are already converted and coerced before they can even prime their inquisitive spirit.

News as a high-selling and high-yielding commodity has, therefore, come to rely on a traditional marketing mantra, nothing sells like fear. Negative news and crimes have been hot-sellers because they take us into a darkness that is taboo, feed our latent voyeurism and thereafter strike such a fear of uncontrolled chaos that we snap into becoming more morally vigilant. As the lynchings have shown, the reality manifested itself only because it was nourished and fed by a fear psychosis, of the anti-establishment, of the anarchist, of the delinquent, of the debauch, of a natural disaster, of disease.

At the worst receiving end of this tirade of Internet democracy and speedy conclusions is news journalism itself. Clearly, it is racing against time and resources, both of which are needed to subject information sources to scrutiny. Then in a global culture, which disallows satire, debate or cross-pollination of opinions, and which only has a tight space for the black and white, there is no room for interpretative or complex layers in between, except as a disruptive cloud. While we may make laws and rulebooks for tech giants that feed off on our inadequacies to make an industry of pedagogy, self-regulation in a democracy is de rigueur to restore trust of what makes news, its source and facts. At the same time, the fight against fake news should not become an alibi for squashing dissent. That leads to a bigger kind of cynicism.