Rajdeep Sardesai, consulting editor and journalist at the India Today Group, addresses a group of journalists at the Press Club of India in New Delhi, India, April 3, 2018. REUTERS/Saumya Khandelwal
Rajdeep Sardesai of the India Today media group speaks about the 'fake news' plan at the Press Club of India in New Delhi. Journalists fear the government may have been testing the water for further rules © Reuters
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What exactly constitutes fake news? Who in India propagates it? And how should it be discouraged or stopped?

These vexing questions dominated India’s national debate last week, after Narendra Modi’s government declared its intention to blacklist mainstream media journalists accused of creating or propagating “fake news”. 

New Delhi’s diktat did not define what would constitute “fake news”, but seasoned Indian journalists agreed the rules would be a way to harass reporters for publishing stories not to the administration’s liking. 

After a vociferous outcry — including from TV channels usually sympathetic to the government — the prime minister retreated, rescinding the notice 15 hours after it had been issued. But the debate over fake news is unlikely to fade in India, where the explosive growth of smartphones has meant rumours and propaganda spread fast, with virtually no accountability. 

WhatsApp , with more than 200m Indian users, is effectively one of the country’s biggest media platforms — a powerful tool for moulding public sentiment a year out from a general election. “It’s become an alternative media platform bigger than anything else,” says Govindraj Ethiraj, a former television news anchor.

India’s WhatsApp networks are clogged with misinformation, from rumours about imminent banking system disruptions to doctored photos and videos that are designed to stoke communal enmity, particularly against India’s Muslim minority. 

Mr Ethiraj established FactChecker, which uses publicly available data to assess the veracity of claims made by the government, political parties and public figures, and Boom, which debunks misleading content from both mainstream and social media. As he sees it, when it comes to fake news, “politically-affiliated organisations are the biggest troublemakers”. 

Currently doing the rounds is a slick video “exposé” claiming that national arch-rival Pakistan wants to help India’s opposition Congress party defeat Mr Modi in the 2019 general election. Despite its high production values, the video would be unconvincing to internet-savvy viewers. But Pratik Sinha, founder of fact-checking website Altnews, says India’s millions of poorly-educated smartphone users are highly susceptible to manipulation. 

“There is a huge section of the population whose internet literacy is close to nil and who do not know what to believe,” he says. “They are being fed with rumours.” 

India has also seen the emergence of new media operations that appear suspiciously like old-fashioned government “propaganda” machines, which try to discredit even well-sourced mainstream media reports that embarrass the government. Some enjoy official patronage. Last week, 13 cabinet ministers from Mr Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party took to Twitter promote thetruepicture.in, which calls itself a “fact-checking website” but offers no basic facts about the identity of its owners or editorial leadership. 

However, its preoccupations are explicit: the media’s “tendency” to show Mr Modi’s government “in a bad light”, and readiness to “defend and help Rahul Gandhi and the Congress safeguard their image”. 

Others, such as the provocative site PostCardNews, are coarser still. Its founder, Mahesh Hedge, was arrested last month on charges of “promoting communal enmity” for a social media post claiming that a Jain monk — who was injured in a road accident — had been “attacked by a Muslim youth”. 

After Mr Hegde’s arrest, several BJP politicians publicly demanded his release, citing free speech concerns. 

Mainstream media outlets are not without faults. Some TV channels, with their uncivil discourse, seem little more than propaganda machines themselves. Even outlets committed to core journalistic principals of accuracy, fairness and accountability now shy away from stories that are likely to invite the wrath of ruling party politicians or powerful business people. Sometimes they simply get the story wrong.

But India’s fake news-busters see little evidence that they intentionally create malicious or incendiary content. If the government is serious about fighting fake news, it cannot use journalists as straw men. It must look inward, among its own ranks.

amy.kazmin@ft.com

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