- Dev Agrawal
NEW MEDIA AND BRACKISH EXECUTIVE: THE CONTEMPLATION OF LYNCHING
AS SOCIAL MEDIA has taken over print media as the preferred method of news consumption, the issue of misinformation has been given much attention. Misinformation, or ‘fake news’ as the media landscape has popularly labelled, is spread to successfully manipulate powerful narratives that impact politics, society, education, social structures and democracies. With the introduction of interactive media and the ability to form ‘closed-groups’ within social media platforms, users can choose to sever themselves off from those opinions that do not overlap with their own. This group-ism becomes tighter at each instant that further threatens their existing belief systems. As a result, the reinforcement of ideas in such online cocoons has become impenetrable for various contradictory views. Hitherto, this story-telling using manipulated narratives is often used to inject interpretive bias or a ‘spin’ to the existing process of knowledge production and consumers of information are sometimes made aware to exercise caution while approaching such narratives.
The incident of Dimapur lynching was one of the derivations of the above mentioned rhetoric formation phenomenon. On 5 March 2015, a resentful mob of relatively 6,000 people stormed the Dimapur Central Prison, yanked Syed Sarifuddin (Farid) Khan out and then proceeded to pummel rock and ultimately lynch him. Appearances of the event, snapshots and recorded videos spread on the internet, showing a bloodstained and tormented naked man at the leniency of a monstrous crowd. (Shyam Balausbramanian, NDTV) (1). the dreadful incident and the later occurrences were reported extensively in the national tabloids and across digital media for nearly a week, after which it vanished from all media, as has become the customary practice now. The deplorable incident can be examined by the “identifiable victim effect” (Anna Kurian,2015)(2) which states that an identified and identifiable victim is more likely to be aided and rescued than a statistical victim is; figures do not evoke consolation, real incidents do. Syed Sarifuddin (Farid) Khan was arrested on pretext of the facts of the FIR that on 23 February 2015, a 20-year-old student from Shri Digamber Jain Girls' College in Dimapur was raped in Hotel De Oriental Dream.
The fact that internet today, by providing leading accessibility, has been able to dwindle the level of ignorance, among the general populace cannot be overlooked.
However, it has overshadowed the most deprecated sections of society, counting immigrants and the sharply distressed, which has a cascading effect on further entrenching a sense of homogenous marginality rather than supporting identity politics online. Although, the impressive span to which almost all participants go to connect with social media, either partaking a computer with loved ones or being thrifty in order to purchase a smartphone or looking for an internet cafe to connect, accentuates both how far-reaching they are as well as how regulative they have grown into. Their importance goes beyond than just dwelling in contact. Social media awards a platform to communicate something more rooted, about individuality, about exclusive exchanges and about how one positions herself/himself in this digital world. Whether along with loved ones, colleagues or distant acquaintances, social media is convenient, amusing and even obsessive, at times as it grants people boundless access to post popular adventures, generally related to their deprecated individual reality, and to formulate a composite feeling of attachment over individuality. (Nell Haynes, 2016) (3). However, these concepts seem to have vanished, if the current handling of internet is analysed by political and social occurrences.
In the countdown to the 2014 general elections in India, an image of a sumptuous bus stop was circulated, claiming that it was the Bus Rapid Transport System from Ahmedabad (Amal, 2013) (4). The objective of the tweet was to showcase the ‘Gujarat Model’ but in reality, the image was not from Ahmedabad but from Guangzhou in China. The person who shared this image reportedly went on to hold an authoritative position in his new professional role after the 2014 elections. Today, the phrase ‘fake news’ is a commonly used one in most urban and semi-urban households. However, it is often said that the practice of using social media to mislead the populace at large for political propaganda had already begun in India in 2012-13. In the month of August 2015, a website that displayed a strong affiliation to a certain religion was registered. The founder of this website fabricated a video in 2016 promoting blogging as a business idea. In this video, he claimed that his websites got twelve to fifteen million hits a month. This video also featured a screenshot of the owner’s ad revenue, which would show an incremental increase every time someone clicked on one of the several ads embedded within the articles on the portal.
In one of its articles, the portal had posted a video claiming that a man from a majority community was murdered by members of a minority community and the Indian media was silent about it. This was in backdrop of a cattle trader, Pehlu Khan (Anjana Prakash, 2019) (5) being lynched in Alwar, Rajasthan. The video was actually from Bangladesh and had no element of inter-religious conflict. This owner of the portal seemed to have figured out two objectives in one go – political propaganda and financial gains. The growth of such websites happened at the same time as when internet usage in India saw a steep rise. In June 2016, India as a country was reportedly using 200 million GB of data per month. By March 2017, this figure had increased to 1.3 billion – an increase of six and a half times in a space of nine months. Internet was now reaching the farthest corners of this country. Usually, such growth would bring unlimited cheer. After all, the Internet is an enormously empowering technology. On one hand, online websites providing door-to-door services and Internet banking services flourished, internet led to formation of “Hindutva groups” where immediate location of “potential threats” was shared. Pseudo-Nationalism and cow protection has become patent pretexts of looting, thrashing, and lynching by mob by acting on information received digitally through these “Hindutva groups” from across India. Behind all such crimes, philosophy of the faction that were non-aligned to National Independence movement and fraternity can be seen being of heighted assistance. (Syyed Mansoor Agha, 2018)(6).
A picture of Mohammed Naeem (Suhasini Raj,2017)(7) , begging for his life with folded hands, his face dripping with blood, shirt ripped and his vest soaked in blood was splashed across several newspapers on 19 May 2017. Naeem, among six others, was lynched to death in Jharkhand after child-kidnapping rumours went viral on WhatsApp (Vijay Murty, 2017) (8). A Hindi text (translated) that was circulated via WhatsApp claimed, “Suspected child lifters are carrying sedatives, injections, spray, cotton and small towels. They speak Hindi, Bangla and Malayalam. If you happen to see any stranger near your house, immediately inform local police as he could be a member of the child-lifting gang”. The fear of losing one’s own child had caused people to come out on the street and lynch seven people, none of whom had committed any crime. Had internet come with a handbook, just the way the cooking stove in our home does, these seven people might have been alive today and over a dozen people would have been jailed for the crime.
What caused these murders? An absolute lack of Internet literacy. There is a staunch need for governmental intervention with the primary focus of fighting disinformation propagated in Indian social media as well as the mainstream media ecosystem. One of the earliest fact-checks showed how an abominable video of a young woman who was burnt alive for allegedly shooting a taxi driver in Guatemala was being circulated, claiming her to be a Hindu Marwadi woman burnt in India by Muslims (Amanpreet Kaur,2019)(9). Since then, over 1,000 articles have been penned which has debunked and documented the most viral myths in India. In the past two years, certain clear patterns of misinformation have emerged. A prominent portion of this Right wing propaganda seems to be anchored around misinformation targeting minorities. From fake videos claiming that Muslims celebrated Pakistan’s win over India in Champion’s Trophy (ScoopWhoop Staff, 2017) (10) to falsely suggesting that the name of the driver of the ill-fated train that ran over several devotees on Dussehra in Amritsar was Imtiaz Ali (FirstPost Staff, 2018) (11); a concerted and organized attempt is being made to polarize by projecting minorities in a negative light and blaming them for real and imaginary crimes across the country. The provocation for the recent eruption of violence in West Bengal was a Facebook post showing a defamatory portrayal of Prophet Muhammad posted by a Hindu teenager. Disturbing photographs and directives on social media networks further agitated the showdown between Hindus and Muslims in the state. Some of the most provocative material was either forged or shared out of context. (Malavika Vyawahare, 2017)(12).
The themes of nationalism also frequently surface in fake news stories in the form of rumours of Pakistan’s flag being sighted or ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ slogans being heard in the rallies of political opponents of nationalist parties (Times Fact Check,2018)(13). Distortion of history has also been a prominent theme. From pictures of Jawaharlal Nehru showing affection to his sister and niece being shared as evidence of his ‘character’ to allegations that the Indian football team had to play barefoot because of him, India’s first prime minister remains one of the favourite targets of fake news. However, an example of how the “tables have turned” could be observed in the recent incident, when the Nobel laureate Richard H Thaler had called the rollout of new notes profoundly erroneous and criticised the launch of the Rs 2000 note in spite of being a demonetisation supporter. Which was opposed to government’s propaganda that he had actually appreciated the government’s move. (Financial Express Online, 2017) (14).
With multiple fact-checking websites working in arrangement, verified accounts on social media, which had formerly put out numerous messages of misinformation, became watchful. Nonetheless, unsubstantiated accounts started converting into seeds of misinformation, particularly on Twitter. This is substantiated by CFA Executive Director Daniel E. Stevens statement, who says that the , “Political operatives from Facebook and Google help politicians get elected and then lobby them after they’ve won. Through this arrangement, tech companies enjoy unparalleled access to elected officials. Government needs to investigate this conduct and consider additional laws and regulations to prevent tech companies form abusing their influence.” (Campaign for Accountability report, 2018) (15). This phenomenon is observed through the pages of the Indian Army, crickets/propagandist such as Virendra Sehwag, politicians such as Narendra Modi and Yogi Adityanath and is seemingly common for multiple Facebook political pages. Quite a few of the above mentioned pages have ,over the years, added a million followers and are allegedly sold at a bulky premium.
With misinformation through social media increasing on one hand, mainstream media has, on the other, became a part of the problem, rather than a solution. While the misinformation on social media usually materialize from a position of resentment, distortion in mainstream media is, as if, a part of the business model ratified by various Indian media outlets. The burden of generating incessant content for web portals and 24x7 TV channels, along with time constraints has led to fact checking to go for a spin. There has been a reduction in the volume of people studying articles. Most people just scroll through their newsfeed and bump into suitable news content. They customarily just read the headlines or watch a short video clip of the presented information. Fake news does not exists in a vacuum. Nearly 64.5 percent readers receive breaking news from Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat and Instagram contrary to traditional media. (Regina Mihindukalasurya, 2020)(16). among these people, many of them haughtily post their pictures with popular leaders on their profiles. If misinformation remains drawing political financing, then the fake news arrangement will continue to multiply. Their belief, often blind, consists of attributing an immaculate status to ancient treatment methods that are considered immune from any critique. Reproducing and continuing investigation in the field of social observance and forensic behaviourism, we find information that valid reflective cautions of deceitful news can help people eliminate misleading information, although these observations are uncertain. (Misha Ketchell, 2020) (17).
Although severely limited but general populace in India do have access to basic societal literature on the internet through informant webpages such as JSTOR and Google Scholar. However, to initiate peer-to-peer fact checking such among friends or family directly or in WhatsApp groups, one must understand the key characteristics of misinformation and the types of people who believe in them. Receiving a WhatsApp text or a video, scrolling through one’s Facebook or Twitter timeline are one of the many examples of how individuals can be exposed to unverified content (Samarth Bansal and Kiran Garimella, 2019)(18).
While misinformation uses the same social media platforms and methods of outreach, the causes of trouble here are significantly different. For other kinds of misinformation, fake news generators often understand the economic or political lucrativeness and the pathology of the widespread damage it can cause. The people who share it also feel that their moral, social responsibility is complete by sharing the information to the people concerned and thus feel a rush of dopamine – the rewarding rush of neurotransmitter release in the brain cells that mimic the action of the brain under addictive drugs.
This shared content across social media applications may become ‘viral’ and be passed off as a convincing piece of evidence generated by investing a few hours of internet search, despite seeming dubious and unverified by an expert in the field. This content may be amplified later by the understated category of social media influencers. This category is of utmost importance in convincing people with unverified information (Jelle Fastenau, 2018) (19).These often consist of politicians, celebrities or people without prominence, with ‘ultra-nationalist’ or ‘far-right’ views.
By imparting greater importance to ancient scriptures, they are used to maintain an intellectual and ethnic superiority of the religious far right in India. (Jo Becker, 2019)(20).
Although accounts of such incidents are incomparable with the supremacy derived from ancient scriptures, it is conclusive of the fact that political extremists have little to do with unbiased scientific evidence. It is my personal experience that this group is the hardest to convince, as they are the ones most likely to dismiss any opinion enveloped with criticism, even if the facts have legal substantiation [lynching] (Ipsita Chakravarty, 2019) (21). This group has its own set of conspiracy theories, often labelling people as ‘brainwashed by modern training’ or ‘an agent of the drug mafia’. Then, one may identify the parts of misinformation that have caused the most amount of agitation to address the specific fear of the individual. Thereafter, with an empathetic overtone, simplified and stark logical information can be delivered that has both expert advice and scientific evidence from published studies and thus rightly depict this colossal shift in nature of law and justice with the rise of the new media.
1.Shyam Balausbramanian, “High Alert in Assam and Nagaland after Mob Lynching of Alleged Rapist in Dimapur,”NDTV, March 07, 2015.
2. Anna Kurian, “Dimapur Lynching and the Impossibility of Remembering,” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 50, Issue No. 51, 19 Dec 2015.
3.Haynes, Nell. "The Social Media Landscape: Performing Citizenship Online." In Social Media in Northern Chile, 39-62. London: UCL Press, 2016. Accessed May 10, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1g69xv2.6.
4. Amal, “How China’s BRTS landed up in Modi’s Gujarat?” Entecity, July 13, 2013.
5. Anjana Prakash, “A Detailed Breakdown of Exactly How Justice Was Denied to Pehlu Khan,” The Wire, September 26, 2019.
6.Syyed Mansoor Agha, “Rare Conviction Of Cow-Vigilantes In Lynching Case,” Muslim observer, April 4, 2018.
7.Suhasini Raj, “Hindu Cow Vigilantes in Rajasthan, India, Beat Muslim to Death,” The New York Times, April 5, 2017.
8.Vijay Murty, “Hands folded, blood-soaked body: Pictures of man begging for life capture brutality of Jharkhand lynching,” Hindustan Times, Jamshedpur, May 22, 2017.
9.Amanpreet Kaur, “Fact Check: Truth behind the viral video of Hindu girl set ablaze in Madhya Pradesh,” India Today, June 24, 2019.
10. ScoopWhoop Staff, “These Videos Showing Indian Muslims Cheering Pak’s Champions Trophy Victory Are Fake!” ScoopWhoop, June 20, 2017.
11. FirstPost Staff, “Amritsar train mishap: Fake news on 'Muslim' driver circulated on social media; news agency shares misleading 'eyewitness' account” FirstPost, October 22, 2018.
12.Malavika Vyawahare, “People are terrible at spotting fake photos, study shows,” Hindustan Times, July 18, 2017.
13. Times Fact Check, “FAKE ALERT: Congress supporters DID NOT use Pakistan flag while celebrating election win,” The Times of India, December 13, 2018.
14. Financial Express Online, “Nobel prize winning demonetisation supporter lambasts one particular step of Narendra Modi” Financial Express, November 20, 2017.
15. Campaign for Accountability report, “Partisan Programming: How Facebook and Google’s Campaign Embeds Benefit Their Bottom Lines” Campaign for Accountability, August 14, 2018.
16. Regina Mihindukalasurya, “Nearly 18,000 Twitter accounts spread ‘fake news’ for BJP, 147 do it for Congress: Study” The Print, January 31, 2020.
17. Misha Ketchell, “Social media fuels wave of coronavirus misinformation as users focus on popularity, not accuracy” The Conservation, April 6, 2020.
18.Samarth Bansal and Kiran Garimella, “Fighting fake news: Decoding ‘fact-free’ world of WhatsApp” Hindustan Times, March 5, 2019.
19. Jelle Fastenau, “Under the Influence: The Power of Social Media Influencers” Crobox, March 6, 2018.
20. Jo Becker, “The Global Machine Behind the Rise of Far-Right Nationalism” The New York Times, August 10, 2019.
21.Ipsita Chakravarty, “BJP IT chief’s response to Rahul Bajaj proves the party’s inability to handle dissent” Scroll, December 2, 2019.
Cover Image: AP
About the author: Dev Agrawal is an undergraduate student at the Jindal Global Law School, pursuing Bachelors in Law. His main areas of interest include Socio-political issues in ‘Modern’ Democracies and Analysis of Geo-politics, in context of the Indo-Pacific Region.