Part 2 of our discussion on FakeNews, hosted with support from MintPart 1 | Part 3

“We have to recognise the fact that Fake News is created to accrue power in some form or the other,” Saikat Datta, Former Editor (National Security) at HT Media, said, speaking at MediaNama’s discussion on Fake News, Rumors & Online Content Regulation, was categorical that Fake News is not new. “For decades, the Americans have had a doctrine called the doctrine of information operations. Where did they get it? Fake news goes 2000 years back. The spread of religion started with fake news”, he added, saying “It becomes a question of faith and belief. Unless we recognise that, there is nothing that you can do to address fake news.”

“If you think some regulation of content or platforms will work,” Datta continued, “(it won’t) because it is in the national charter of various agencies, even in India, to actually produce fake news. From the fields that I’m familiar with, it used to be called Information Operations, or disinformation campaigns. This is done by the state.”

Political parties and information ops

The difference now, is that political parties in India are also using Fake News to influence citizens:

“We spoke to a couple of political parties and their social media cells,” Venkat Ananth, staff writer at The Ken said, “and we found that there is a trial and error approach, as to what works. They said it’s a combination of the message and the platform. One guy sends a message to a group, and that goes to another group. If he (the original sender) gets the message back, it’s treated as a success. We found that the rumor about the Rs 2000 note – and no one wanted to come on record about it – it was circulated by a fan of the BJP, and it went on and on, and it exploded. Unfortunately, it made mainstream news. You had an anchor from Zee News who extolled the virtues of that note for 30 minutes on a platform. It’s unbelievable and unprecedented. There is a propaganda play here. A significant chunk of what is created is propaganda.”

The role of mass leaders in the spread of Fake News

Raheel Khursheed, Head – News, Politics & Government at Twitter India said “Lets also not forget the influence of mass leaders when they put out or fundamentally question the legitimacy of news organisations that spend a lot of time fact-checking. You have Trump, who spends hours berating organisations like NYT or CNN, with no repercussion, playing completely into his audience which believes that, and there’s nothing that CNN or NYT can do to counter that.”

“In the political arena, the PM spoke about how Hindus and Muslims getting electricity separately. If you have news like that which the leader of this country is validating, you are in trouble, because everybody does this shoot and scoot thing, especially politicians,” Meghnad Sahasrabhojanee, from the office of Tathagata Satpathy, MP, added. “When there are fact checkers coming in, nobody reads that. From a propaganda perspective, fake news is one of the biggest factors being used. In campaigning, this escalates to another level. There are fake news factories, and there are people making Whatsapp forwards daily, and they do a trial and error thing to see which is spreading.”

“There’s a subreddit called the Uncle network. They create messages that they hope will go viral, and every time it does, they edit it to ensure it goes even more viral. A lot of the forwards you guys get actually originate there.”

The role of Native Advertising Networks on news sites

Abhimanyu Radhakrishnan, previously with Times Internet, said that “Facebook has been getting a lot of flack, some of it deserved, some of it not, but anybody who goes to these ad-tech conferences will see 2-3 guys boasting that they have a wider reach than Facebook. Any guesses? (It is) Outbrain and Taboola, and of late Colombia. Here’s my big problem. Anyone can put up a random site and boost a post on Facebook, but the biggest push that these guys are getting in terms of credibility, is that you can read a high quality well written, editor-fact-checked article on Mint, but at the end of that article – and it’s called related stories, not called sponsored content – are six “news-looking” stories, and it is the same six categories that have dominated the Internet: penis enlargement, lose weight now, but written as “fantastic new medical discovery made”, and the website below says something like health news monitor. (It) looks like an authentic site, doesn’t look like spam, written like authentic journalism with a fake byline. But every news organisation has given its real estate to these 3-4 platforms, and that has weaponised this stuff to look like news and not ads in my opinion.”

“Facebook will not overnight put a site put up onto your news feed,” he continued. “It will first see that your 100,000 people with Facebook logins have gone to this site. To get that first 100,000 push, Outbrain and Taboola work like magic. You can pay $1000 to get your first few hits, and suddenly that site has Facebook traffic on it. Now it is considered as credible for having a unique user base.”

The business model of fake news?

There is money to be made. Arvind Jha, CEO of Pariksha Labs, and a member of the Aam Aadmi Party, highlighted the fact that the US is a lucrative market for advertising. “This whole propaganda about Fake News started because the US customer is a very expensive customer. There is a big business model here. People are making $60,000 a year, where (earlier) they were making $3,000 a year, because you can start a website, create fake news, put some adwords, and start monetising all the traffic.”

Indeed, a Wired story recently highlighted how lucrative it has been: “He posted the link on Facebook, seeding it within various groups devoted to American politics; to his astonish­ment, it was shared around 800 times. That month—February 2016—Boris made more than $150 off the Google ads on his website. Considering this to be the best possible use of his time, he stopped going to high school.”

Meghnad disagreed, saying that it’s largely political propaganda in India: “There’s no business model around (Fake News) factories. There is just propaganda generation going on.”

Cyril Sam of Scroll.in pointed out that “All along we were working on the economics of clicks. The problem began when we moved from the economics of clicks to the economics of engagement. Sharing happens when you’re angry or excited by something, and as long as someone is trying to manipulate your emotions, we don’t have a solution anywhere close by.”

Why does Fake News spread?

Is it, as Cyril Sam said, because of the fact that we’re like or share based on our emotions? Adnan Hasnain Alam said that Fake News spreads “because people want to believe – it’s a confirmation bias, because it confirms what you want to believe about the government, about your enemy, and opponents. It is also playing psychologically with the person reading or consuming the news. For this, what we need to do is to have better gatekeepers.” Prashant Singh, co-founder of Signals, disagreed, saying that “people aren’t born with a predisposition on a topic. They’re informed first.”

Chirag Patnaik of Outlook Magazine concurred, saying that people have been informed by their social circle “The family group, the friends group, and you could start getting exposed when they’re 10years old. My nephews and nieces have started saying that Hindi is the rashtra-bhasha. Clearly, there is an influence circuit that happens as early as that, long before they pick up a newspaper or are on Facebook. When they get on to Facebook and see something that is shared with their friend’s circuit, they say that this confirms what I believe in, and hit share. They might not believe it or understand the implications.”

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