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This article is written by Rohan Aditya.

Introduction

Jaideep Ahlawat as Hathi Ram Chaudhury in the critically acclaimed series Paataal Lok rambles on to his subordinate in the opening scene “The world is divided into three realms- the Swarg Lok (Heaven) where the rich and powerful live, the Dharti Lok (Earth) where normal people like him live and the Paataal Lok (Underworld) where the evil and corrupted and vile people live, and come out from time to time to wreak havoc in the lives of the people of the Dharti Lok.” While we can consider this as a meaningless rambling of a disgruntled police officer who feels that his life and job are a punishment, the lines that follow are a mocking of India’s reality. He says “Waise toh yeh shastron mein likhe tha, meine Whatsapp pe padha (although these are written in the Holy Scriptures, I studied this in Whatsapp)”.

With the advance of technology, everything has boomed and advanced along with it. Ten years ago we only saw the news on the TV, five years ago it was in PC’s and laptops and now it is in Whatsapp forwards on our phones (not that I receive any as a twenty year old). This advancement has been weaponized in recent times and used to devastating effect by many interested parties and we can safely say that a war is being fought for who can spread the most fake and hate mongering news. Sadly, there’s only one side in this war and there is only one winner.

So, with the advent of the spread of fake news, isn’t there going to be any consequences for the news that is being read and the legal ramifications that come hand in hand for this act? We can say that there are consequences from reading these news and there are legal ramifications for spreading fake news, but the events that follow after reading such fake news are far more disastrous than the legal consequences. 

I can be sitting in Chennai and spread a fake news article about some community in some village in Uttar Pradesh through a Whatsapp forward and with that I can incite some communal incident. Therefore I can be judge, jury and executioner in this case. I can cause tremendous outrage and use that hatred and create a pogrom. No one can trace me down, no one can stop me. If you catch one person, tens of people spring forward in their place. They are like weeds, they cause unlimited destruction, but are hard to battle against. 

Welcome to the advent of social media, where anyone can deliver biased justice according to their whims. So the next time when your English professor asks you if social media is a boon or a bane, you should definitely write that social media is neither a boon or a bane, it is an invisible weapon that only spells doom to the person who’s on the front side of the barrel.

In this edition of believe it or not, you don’t have a choice, but to believe

So all of us must have heard about the Snapchat chat screenshot from the Bois Locker Room by now. You must have heard about the mommy elephant that died when a pineapple she ate consisted of a bomb and exploded inside her stomach, killing her and the child in her womb. You must have heard about the boy who went missing and was found dead in a well, with the well being on the property of a Muslim.

All of them have nothing in common, apart from these incidents having been taken up by social media users, dissecting these news and a verdict given. The Snapchat chat screenshot was a conversation between a girl impersonating as a male and ‘conspiring’ with other guys to rape her. Apparently she had done this to test the integrity of one of those guys (there are really better ways to do this, other than this). This chat, which normally shouldn’t have been joined with the Bois Locker Room chat, (which was more hideous by the way). However it found its way into that issue and there was a manhunt for a guy who had that name which the girl had chosen for her impersonation.  

The mommy elephant that died after eating a pineapple with a bomb in it was a really tragic matter and it will definitely bring tears into the most hardened souls. As tragic and pathetic it was, there was a side news article that said that it was Muslims who had killed that elephant. This conclusion was came to because Malappuram was a Muslim-majority area. HOWEVER, the elephant died in Palakkad and not in Malappuram and therefore, a seemingly strange incident was given a communal angle and twisted enough to create hatred unnecessarily. Similar to the boy who was found dead in a well, news spread that Muslims from that area had kidnapped him and killed him as a human sacrifice. To prevent bloodshed from happening, the DGP of Bihar had to step in and issue a notice that Muslims hadn’t kidnapped him and killed him.

So do we see a pattern here? Seemingly different incidents taken, a fake puff piece of article is written for it and is published on the Internet where thousands of people can get their hands on it. This is all it takes to destroy people you want to exact vengeance against. No one will suspect you and before they find that this was fake news, the damage is done and the parties are killed. So the next time someone quotes some news article and says that ‘that person did this and this person did that’, take a deep breath, and believe no one. I say this because every article that is written now is written more like an op-ed and not as a facts presenting article.

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Explanation of the process behind the name of this article

The author weeps for the people who still believe in the truth and integrity of the journalism and the news that we read on a daily basis. Unfortunately that isn’t a joke. There is a strong urge to denounce the name ‘News’ and call it as what it is- opinions.

This process is explained in the simplest way for all of us to understand below:

I’m a normal guy who is sitting in a room in a middle-income family’s house in Chennai. I see a picture of a person bleeding from the head in some country. I notice that there is a riot happening in some other state of the country. I download the picture of the bleeding man, write up a puff piece article about how this man was almost beaten to death by a mob from some other community/religion in the state where the riot is happening and send it to some news website and send it as a Whatsapp forward to people who I know will believe this fake news and forward it other people. Right now I’m the petitioner in this court of fake news. My case has been listed for hearing the moment it makes its way into the Internet. Then other people who come across this news article share it in their Whatsapp groups. They start to debate amongst themselves about the community/religion and say how that they are all evil and are enemies to the country’s peace. They act as my representative advocate and further push my agenda of creating communal bloodshed.

Once there is enough din created by the believers and #murderthecommunity/religion trends on Twitter, this fake news article is picked up by news houses that have similar interests in creating communal bloodshed like me. They choose to discuss this article (fake) on primetime news hour and discuss how that community/religion is a bloodthirsty community/religion and want to destroy the lives of the other community/religion. Now hundreds of thousands people watch this news discussion and form opinions. They all come to the conclusion that that community/religion is a bloodthirsty one and they must protect their community/religion from them.

If we notice it now, I’ve acted as the petitioner, my believers act as my advocates and news houses act as judge, jury and executioner to my case. The defendants are not given a chance to actually defend their cases and before fact checkers can prove that the puff piece news article that I wrote was a fake one, the damage is done and it cannot be reversed in any way and there would have been blood spilled. 

So this is how I create communal hatred in some obscure village in some state, while I sit in the comfort of my home in some other state.

Legal ramifications for fake news

None so ever. There is absolutely no avenue for accusing someone of spreading fake news and winning a lawsuit and getting adequate compensation. Fake news amounts to defamation and ultimately is a tort and therefore is a civil case and therefore you can only sue for damages and not for punishment. There is a severe disproportion between the act and the consequence.

 For there to be legal ramifications, there needs to be a finding of an illegal act. Since fake news is classified under defamation, the major ingredients that are needed to prove it as discrimination are an intention to tarnish a person’s reputation and that I had the knowledge that the facts I were stating was false. Proving such an allegation is very tough in the normal circumstances, and when a news house publishes this same article, their Right to speech and expression is used to show that they can publish their news.

It’ll always be tough to target and delineate fake news because it almost involves infringing on the Right to Speech and Expression. One would suggest that the Government can monitor the content that is being put on the Internet, but then there will be an infringement of the Right to Privacy. This is what the Government and the people who fight against the spread of fake news suffer terribly against. This is one evil that isn’t necessary but still can’t be fought against in straight means.

Therefore this situation gives rise to uncomfortable questions like ‘should fundamental Rights be monitored and restricted’ or ‘should the Government covertly monitor the spread of online content disregarding the privacy of others?’

Another question that needs to be asked is what kind of a punishment can be given for the act of spreading fake news? Should it be classified as a crime like hate speech?

Also should we hold the Government accountable for having private stake in news houses and thus ensuring their propaganda is spread on TV and the Internet?

Thus, I conclude my article by quoting Valery Legosav from the series Chernobyl,

It’s not that we’ll mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, then we can no longer hear the truth at all. What can we do then?


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