Political commentators, experts and social scientists would trace the history in different ways. But for me as a young sociology scholar who was born in the latter part of 20th century, the first instance where actual ‘fake news’ was planted across the globe was the threat of the ‘Y2K bug’ and the news of the world coming to an end. News channels, both electronic as well as print, ran stories that the world might end as it progressed into the 21st century. This fear that grew out of a fake news story spread so drastically that even the United Nations called its member countries to prepare for the ‘apocalypse’ the world could face if computer systems crashed once the date moved from 1999 to 2000.
The interesting part of the new practice of ‘fake news/paid news’ that the world got exposed to, started to become a part of the political routine in the country.
India follows a democratic set up with a representative form of government. Therefore, for a political party to rise in power, it is essential to generate consciousness among voters. From time to time, the political parties have deployed the mechanism of fake news and paid news for primarily three purposes: to rise to power, to retain power and to snatch power.
For instance, the ruling party in India – Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) – spends over $155,000 US per day in the form of full-page advertisements in newspapers and advertorials on television and radio channels. This was revealed by an inquiry under the Right to Information Act.
Further, the political parties spend a huge amount of money to retain their power by deploying paid news. Just imagine, despite being the ruling party in the country, BJP spends such a huge amount every day. After all, elections are not a one-time thing
“While West Bengal was already in flames, BJP injected fake news through social media and local newspapers that showed photoshopped images, which further accelerated the tensions.”
While the above two methods are no doubt unethical, the phenomenon of fake news is both unethical as well as lethal as it generates a sense of enmity as a form of public consciousness among masses either against one party or the other. For instance, there have been cases in which one political party used fake news against the other to defame it. Very recently a communal clash broke out in the State of West Bengal in India. It is essential to note that a party named Trinamool Congress (TMC) rules the state of West Bengal. While the State was already in flames because of the communal clash, BJP (The Central ruling party) injected fake news through social media and local newspapers that showed photoshopped images, which further accelerated the tensions. This resulted in drastic societal implications and a curfew was imposed in the state.
The paid news/fake news phenomenon is not limited to the subcontinent. Its traces can be found even in the most advanced country of the time, the United States of America, where Trump has accused the mainstream media of running an agenda against him at the command of his political rivals.
This has become a major concern at the international level. So much so that Google-news recently launched a plugin on its news site that allows the newsreader to check the facts in the news article. While the initiative by Google is a positive step to keep a check on the paid news/fake news phenomenon, not every newsreader is equipped with a smartphone, internet, and a Google news fact checking utility. At least not in India.