Reporting in the time of fake news

It is getting impossible for reporters to understand voters’ choices

My first encounter with fake news was so mundane that it is a blur. It happened during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. I was in Bihar’s Vaishali constituency waiting for a campaign rally to start and struck up a conversation with a group of youngsters. My curiosity had been piqued by the way the boys sat around, talking to each other in a hushed tone. It took a while, but one of them divulged the cause of their excitement. He said that people of a certain religious community had killed those belonging to his in a nearby town. He even let me listen to his news source: an audio clip he had received via Bluetooth on his phone. I had been in the region for a few days and had never heard of such a massacre. Local journalists hadn’t either. But the boy argued that the killings had indeed taken place and that the mainstream media was hand in glove with the perpetrators. I tried to push back a bit, but the boys had made up their mind: they would vote to protect their religion. The fact that I cannot recall the name of the town where this no-incident took place is another indication of how seriously I took this interaction at that point. Which was a shame. This was a problem that most reporters faced on the ground. I was better prepared when the Assembly elections took place in Jharkhand in 2014 and then in Bihar in 2015. WhatsApp usage had exploded by then and so had the reach of disinformation. But it was not easy keeping up with fake news. One had to be a member of WhatsApp groups sharing such information and the phenomenon had evolved so much that disinformation was tailored to target finely sliced and diced demographics. It was impossible to get a complete picture. Even tougher was to understand the effect that fake news was having on voters. Often, people declined to share what they had consumed on social media: voters would rather present themselves as rational beings than creatures of emotion. It would take hour-long interviews to trace voting choices back to a set of inflammatory fake news posts received on WhatsApp. And all of it would be useless if a WhatsApp blast of fake news on the eve of polling could have the potential of changing voting patterns. Elections have become more opaque as a result of social media tools used by political managers: globally, pollsters have gone wrong in recent years as targeted messaging has become more accurate. Disinformation can be even more secretive. It is after all a meeting of minds of the politician’s desire to remain in the shadows and her intended target’s validation of her prejudices. This does not mean that, as another general election season rolls in, journalists have to be aghast at the prospect of playing catch-up with fake news all over again. However, there is a difference this time: news is aware that its antithesis exists. This means we journalists will have to actively reach out and engage with voters with whom we don’t necessarily agree. It means those uncomfortable hour-long conversations in which we try to situate the importance of fake news to voting choices, like we do for gender, caste, religion and other identities.

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