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What is Fake News?

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

“Why don’t we just say Fake News is lying”, Rahul Narayan, Lawyer said, speaking at MediaNama’s discussion on Fake News, Rumors & Online Content Regulation. “Lies which cause problems, which cause communal tension are already a crime and should be treated as such. Lies which are harmless should be dealt with in a moral way, and not a legal way. When it comes to the really serious stuff, it’s a crime and should be dealt with as such. When it comes to stuff which is bad or immoral, it should be for self-regulation.”

Disagreements over what constitutes Fake News continued throughout the discussion:

– Is it organised misinformation? There were, however, disagreements between attendees about what constitutes fake news. Arvind Jha, CEO of Pariksha Labs, and a member of the Aam Aadmi Party, tried to create a distinction between what is inaccurate news and Fake News. The report about the (non-existent) GPS chip in the Rs 2000 note, he said, was inaccurate news, not Fake News. “We don’t worry about parody – that is freedom of speech – but deliberately created content to obfuscate, or try to create a particular impression for a political reason that we should be really worried about”…”There are groups investing time and money to create stories so that the population can be biased in a particular way so because elections are coming up. It’s happening in Finland, Sweden, France, Germany, France, Italy and everywhere”…”We’re talking about trolls, organised armies. The Russians have an organised setup to interfere in other people’s politics, whether it is US, Finland.”

– Does it apply to news organisations only? Sagar Deoskar, from the Office of Rajeev Chandrasekhar, MP, suggested creating a distinction between misinformation and Fake News, saying “Nobody is going to stop me if I have a blog”…”The Guardian doing a story and twisting Snowden’s interview would be Fake News because the Guardian is a reputed newspaper. Should we include WhatsApp forwards and frivolous information then?”

Shoaib Daniyal from Scroll.in said that he wouldn’t call WhatsApp forwards ‘Fake News’:”It’s so decentralised that we’ll never be able to police that. (We should) look at direct disinformation, and call it Fake News. You have to hold news organisations to the standards of Fake News. If my mother is sending me something on WhatsApp, I can’t tell her that she’s sending me fake news.”

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Raheel Khursheed, Head – News, Politics & Government at Twitter India, disagreed, saying that “that restricts us to defining news as only that is created by news organisations. From a news organisation point of view, that’s a great position to take, (but) the fact is that with the advent of technology and platforms, User Generated Content is a thing that is not going away. Ramifications of user generated content in terms of influencing political thought, or markets, or even sociological trends, we’ll not be able to truly assess what the problem is. It’s very easy to point towards the Times of India as incorrectly reporting a story.”

– But what about Fake News sites that look like real news sites? Mahima Kaul, Head of Public Policy for Twitter India, pointed towards entire websites which are manufacturing news. They look like legitimate news sites, and “No one knows who’s running them, there are these bylines, and I think that’s also a part of the Fake News that we’re talking about.”

– Is it just about information which impacts democracy? Apar Gupta, a lawyer, pointed out that the UN special report defines Fake News as news which “overwhelms the democratic process, prevents people from taking political decisions. He says that there is falsity, and there is misinformation which has always existed. The nature of Fake News is that it is overwhelming the democratic process. It’s not allowing people to make choices sensibly.”

I disagreed, pointing out that, then you need to define what News itself is: any information that informs or influences user thinking can be treated as news by them. We also need to look at fake information as well, because that also impacts reputation. Why should it only be political content? If (for example) there was misinformation that Cadbury’s (chocolate) has snake eggs in it, imagine the impact it has on business. Once on CNN’s report (users can upload content), someone put up a report saying that Steve Jobs had died. Apple’s stock plummeted for a bit, and someone probably made a killing in the stock market.

Rohan Venkat of Scroll.in concurred, pointing out how, because of a Whatsapp forward about the price of salt, people went out to buy and hoard salt. “It’s not political but it has effects. Similarly a few years ago when there were rumors that there are riots in Bangalore, when a lot of people from the North East left and moved back.”

Next: How and why is Fake News spreading?
Last: Dealing with Fake News

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