Stating that misinformation spread in India is by design and not by coincidence, Alt News founder Pratik Sinha said on Friday that demanding a law against misinformation would only empower the government to use it against journalists and activists.
Addressing the gathering at the Hyderabad Literary Festival, Pratik said that both WhatsApp and mainstream media are working in coalition. Explaining how media and WhatsApp together spread propaganda, he recalled the turn of events, post the Balakot airstrike carried out by India last year.
In retaliation to the Pulwama attack in which 40 CRPF soldiers were killed, on February 26, 2019, India carried out an airstrike in Balakot in Pakistan in which India claimed they killed a large number of Jaish-e-Mohamed group militants. Subsequently, many media channels quoted "sources" and said that the attack had killed 300-350 terrorists, but did not show any images of the dead bodies. Similarly, the number of was not officially announced by the government. But on WhatsApp, several unrelated photos of dead bodies were being shared as those being killed in the attack, Pratik said.
Pratik argued that initially the government planted the narrative that they killed over 300 terrorists. However, they couldn't show any pictures to ascertain their claim.
“Every newspaper flashed that 300-350 people were killed. Did you see the dead bodies? No, right? But on WhatsApp, you must have seen a bunch of bodies draped in bedsheets saying that this is the amount of devastation that happened,” he recounted.
"When the media went to the mother of a martyred CRPF soldier, she asked, ‘where is a single body of the 350 people who were killed?’ Soon after a bunch of images were shared widely on WhatsApp claiming that these are people who were killed in Balakot,” he added.
He also said that fact-checking websites like Alt News functioned as checks on mainstream news. “The media didn’t show any pictures because they still have a modicum of credibility left. They know that they are fact-checking websites watching them, and if they show any random dead bodies’ pictures, they will be caught. So they will not put pictures, and WhatsApp will further this propaganda by spreading photos of unrelated dead bodies that this was the devastation caused by India.”
“This is how propaganda is being spread. There is a role the media is playing and a role WhatsApp is playing,” Pratik added.
Pratik said that though misinformation is a menace, we shouldn’t ask for a law against it as it would only aid the establishment to hunt down activists and journalists who question them. “Misinformation is a subset of information. And anytime you criminalise it, you’re going down the slippery slope.”
Bolstering his argument, he said, “When article 370 was abrogated, BBC and Al Jazeera reported about a protest from the town of Soura with a video. But immediately, the Union Home Minister tweeted saying that this is a fabricated video and that the protests didn’t happen. We did a fact-check of the video and found it to be genuine.”
“Once you create a law which criminalises information, then you give a handle in the hands of the government to go after anybody who questions them – because the government will decide what is criminal and not.”
Pratik said that the only way to counter propaganda and misinformation is to educate oneself on how to spot fake news, and make it a habit to cross-check wild claims spread on social media.