Why And How Fake News Is Created

Why And How Fake News Is Created

The “unnamed high-level source” is the bread and butter of the media worldwide. For India’s pre-paid and post-paid journalists, the source – often fictitious – is oxygen itself. Scan the daily papers and you’ll discover that up to half the stories are written on the basis of information provided by such anonymous – and therefore unverifiable – contacts.

Don’t get me wrong –sources are often real and they have to be protected. They could be whistleblowers wanting to expose a rotten system; a politician who has got some sleaze on his opponent; or an industrialist whose airline didn’t take off because the aviation minister demanded a Rs 50 crore bribe. Tips can propel a relatively unknown journalist into the famousphere. Arun Shourie became a legend after a tipoff led to his iconic story about women being sold like cattle in Morena and Dholpur. The most famous tipoff in media history led to Watergate and the resignation of a crooked American president.

But then there are journalists who lack contacts, story writing skills, and more importantly ethics. The only way they can keep their jobs is through fibbing and other devious ways. They manufacture quotes, cook up names and invent stories or trends that do not exist. These journalists have the potential to cause long-term damage to the nation state and endanger the lives of its citizens.

Chandan Nandy’s story in The Quint backing Pakistan’s claim that Kulbhushan Jadhav is an Indian spy is the acme of irresponsible reporting. To use the words of American writer Scott Johnson (who was referring to a June 2006 piece in the New York Times, which alerted Islamic terrorists about a highly successful US surveillance programme), “the story was an act of wanton destruction with no arguable public purpose”.

Here is a journalist who has abused his freedom of speech and published a half-baked story, knowing full well it would weaken India’s case at the International Court of Justice and make it easier for Pakistan’s kangaroo courts to execute him. Quoting unnamed intelligence officers (who are conveniently retired) to create a sensation is one of the oldest tricks in journalism. It’s an easy way to become popular in one’s peer group, but it also shows the levels which the Lutyens media will stoop to for personal gain. Such callous disregard for a fellow Indian’s life has probably not occurred in the history of the Indian media.

There is a high probability that Nandy’s story is entirely fake. It is also likely that some junior level or retired intelligence officer made a monkey out of him and was gassing in order to show that he was privy to high-level information. In either case, it will backfire on the profession and the work of honest journalists will now be looked at with suspicion. Journalists are increasingly being referred to as presstitutes because some of them use shoot and scoot methods – that is, allege the most outlandish things, stir the pot of sensationalism, and then go underground. By the time they are exposed, a few weeks would have elapsed and the country would have moved on to the next big story.

The journalists who indulge in such harmful activities will pretend to be liberal and impartial, they will claim to be sophisticated listeners of Bach and Beethoven, and they will order single malt at a Khan Market eatery. But strip away the veneer of sophistication and they are more likely to be low IQ graduates who have opted to become stenographers for their paymasters – political leaders, business houses and foreign intelligence agencies.

Note that these so-called liberals rarely if ever campaign for truly liberal issues – legalising prostitution, gay and lesbian rights, banning triple talaq, uniform civil code and so on. On the contrary, their one-point agenda is to re-establish Gandhi dynasty rule – so their sops and junkets are restored. They know that the Congress rule is loot raj and if the Gandhis return to power they will throw the media some crumbs. The numerous hagiographic publications commissioned by the party and Congress governments keep these select journalists in good health as it involves foreign travel, free accommodation, fat payments and shoddy work, which is exactly what they are capable of.

Two things will be clear from the examples below. One, the abuse of journalistic privileges is rampant. Two, many unscrupulous people join the profession for the fringe benefits; they are not in the media to change the world, but to change their bank balance, their home and their lifestyle. If the nation suffers collateral damage, so be it.

Nuclear threat

Among the more rabid rabble rousers in the Indian media is a Kerala Christian journalist named Annie (name changed) who used to work at a leading national newsmagazine. I joined the company in 1999 a year after India tested five nuclear bombs. As well as being a terrible writer, Annie was extremely unpopular with everyone. None of the journalists liked her, and she was also considered a pain by the drivers, office staff and peons. First up, her cheap perfume drove people nuts. She would insist that as a safety measure a company pool car follow her car right up to her apartment gate and leave only after her parents had come down to personally receive her. Such tactics were being employed not after midnight but around 9pm when Delhi streets were hardly deserted and you could see women walking in the streets in her neighbourhood. What it did was tie up a pool car, delaying other colleagues from reaching home in time. None of the other women employees who used their own car resorted to such a silly rigmarole.

But what really shocked me was when I heard her say to a colleague that the summer of 1999 was hotter than usual because of the nuclear tests the previous year. She was casually dropping this nugget of information whenever she was in earshot of senior journalists. She would keep saying that the atomic tests had impacted the environment in Rajasthan (where the tests were held) and the knock-on effect was being felt nationwide. Thankfully, the likes of Rajdeep and Barkha were not in as large numbers back then and her lie didn’t get much traction. Being a very bad lifestyle journalist, nobody took her seriously anyway.

Annie later told me that the information was provided by her parish priest in her New Delhi church. She said the priest got the information about Indian temperatures from American sources. Having visited Christian churches in Kerala I knew where Annie was coming from. The church is a big influencer in all temporal matters and Christians who attend Sunday mass faithfully regurgitate the regular anti-India and anti-Hindu utterances by the priests.

Annie’s line of thinking is shared by most Indian Christians. They have long reckoned that if India remains a militarily weak country, it can be pressured by the US and Europe to stay in line. They don’t want India to acquire nuclear weapons even if Pakistan and China are armed to the teeth. They don’t care if India loses wars for lack of nuclear weapons. All that Indian Christians want is India to remain weak so the US can stamp out Hindu resurgence – through military means if required. The key to all this is that India must not be allowed to become a nuclear power – or even a decent military power.

I’m pretty sure that under the current ‘Hate Modi’ dispensation she would have got a few journalists to somehow get an expert to say that the heat wave is indeed connected to India’s nuclear blasts. (Just don’t mention that India has tested six nuclear bombs compared with 2064 tests by the Christian nations.)

Annie is still around peddling her Christian church’s Breaking India agenda through her anti-Hindu articles – the most toxic one being her movie review of Bahubali where she pans it for not having  non-Hindu characters. (As if Muslims and Christians wouldn’t look ridiculously anachronistic in a Hindu mythological movie set in ancient India.)

The wonder is that these Christian journalists who openly rubbish India, the defence forces, Hinduism, Hindu monks and Hindu kings and queens are allowed to continue in their cushy jobs by newspaper owners who belong to practising Hindu business families such as Birla, Goenka, Mahindra, Purie and Sarkar, and the orthodox Jains

On Russia’s payroll

In 2017 I wrote a feature story for a defence journal on why India should not buy the Russian MiG-35 fighter and instead buy the American F-16 warplane although it is slightly less capable. My recommendation for an American jet over a Russian one surprised many because not only was I a Russophile but I have consistently written favourably about Russian weapons systems – both in the Russian state media and Indian magazines.

My argument for US weapons is purely geopolitical – buying American today comes with numerous fringe benefits. Firstly, if India becomes a leading buyer of US arms, we no longer have to walk sideways in Washington DC corridors. Once large quantities of US arms start flowing into India we automatically become a close ally. The Americans will then trust us with their latest defence and civilian technology. This is how Israel has become a leading scientific power and this is how India must proceed in its quest for great power status.

Secondly, it would stop the flow of weapons to Pakistan because the American companies wouldn’t risk upsetting India. Better bonding between India and the US would lead to Pakistan’s isolation, penury and eventual breakup. Today, if President Donald Trump and key members of the American establishment are slapping around Pakistan, threatening it with dire consequences, ending defence ties and stopping military aid to that terrorist nation, it is precisely because thousands of American jobs are dependent on military sales to India.

My story, however, ran into trouble when one of the senior editors at the journal said there were a number of issues with it and suggested major edits. I replied: “I could re-write it but I know why you want to kill the story so I decline.”

I knew that the editor – like many Indian journalists – was compromised. Over the year I had read several of his articles in which he was acting as a cheerleader for Russian weapons. In fact, he was rooting for Russian weapons that hadn’t even made it to the prototype stage. There could be only one conclusion – he was either a fan boy or a fan of Russian roubles.

Often taking a stand can do wonders. It did in my case – two months later the senior editor was overruled and my story was published without a single edit.

Although it was a small victory for me, its glow was diminished by the realisation that defence journalism has become a high-stakes affair with weapons deals now averaging a billion dollars. Instead of reporting on – and evaluating and comparing – weapons like they once used to, reporters are acting as stenographers for Dassault, Rostec, Boeing and Lockheed-Martin.

Worse, well-known defence writers are pitching fighter aircraft or weapons systems directly to the government. Basically, the journalist is now the new middleman. And unlike the greasy Win Chadha or the slimy Ottavio Quattrochi (both Bofors brokers), these journalists can lobby freely in the Defence Ministry because their media colleagues will not report on them.

I met him on a Mumbai suburban train

Back in the year 1999 I had joined a leading national newsmagazine as a senior level copyeditor. One of the characters I encountered was a reporter named Robin (name changed) from Bandra, Mumbai. Like the other Mumbai-based reporters, Robin had good command of the language, used to file his stories well before the deadline, and was quick to clarify doubts and answer questions raised by the copyeditors. The Mumbai journalists were a joy to work with – unlike the linguistically challenged reporters from Delhi and northern India.

However, there was one problem – Robin was economical with the truth. In fact, he cooked up facts and created fictitious names and companies at will. He had a habit of quoting diamond merchants, housewives and IT guys whom he claimed to have met in suburban trains. This was convenient as he could write almost anything and when asked for further information he would say it wasn’t possible because the person he had interviewed did not provide a contact number.

Robin wrote lifestyle and business stories and the characters in his stories were all fake. His downfall came when he fibbed a bit too much – he wrote that India was sending 90,000 IT professionals to the US annually (the real figure was closer to 60,000). A flood of emails from IT professionals and headhunting companies from India and the US blasted holes in the story, forcing the management to take action. Robin was sacked but not for lying – he had been lying for years and it was tolerated because his bosses were crooked too and didn’t think it was such a big deal. He got the boot only because he had brought shame to a reputable national weekly.

Gupta’s failed coup against the Army

Reporters like Robin are allowed to publish low level lies – albeit with potentially serious repercussions – because their bosses are peddling bigger ones.

For instance, on January 4, 2012 Shekhar Gupta of the Indian Express published the mother of all plants. Titled “The January night Raisina Hill was spooked: Two key Army units moved towards Delhi without notifying Govt”,  the story was splashed across the entire front page as if India had gone to war. Peddling innuendo upon innuendo, it led readers to assume the army was plotting against the government of Manmohan Singh.

The story was clearly aimed as a rocket at General V.K. Singh. Gupta’s story related to the night of January 16 when the Army chief and the government were locked in a confrontation over the General’s age issue. On January 16 the army chief had filed a petition in the Supreme Court in the issue of his date of birth. According to Gupta and his co-authors Ritu Sarin and P. Samanta, unnamed (of course) intelligence sources reported an un-notified movement by military units based in Hisar, Haryana, towards Delhi.

Scientist and author N.S. Rajaram comments: “Gupta and his paper were acting as conduits for planting propaganda as news at the bidding of some political masters. In other words, the command to plant the story came from someone so high that they dared not refuse. Willingly or unwittingly, Shekhar Gupta and his colleagues at the Express have brought to light two evils that plague journalism today – sensationalism and planted news.”

There could be two reasons the story was published. One, the paper was using the issue as a gimmick to boost its circulation. However, a one-day spike in circulation means zilch. Without delivering high quality journalism on a daily basis, the Indian Express could not have hoped to increase its circulation permanently.

It is more likely that the story was planted by 10 Janpath or Brajesh Mishra (who was sympathetic to Sonia Gandhi and the Congress) to discredit General Singh in the eyes of the nation. That the Congress party will play with national security is given, but shouldn’t Gupta have exercised restraint? His readiness to play along is a pointer to the dystopian state of the Indian mainstream media.

Gupta didn’t care that the story could have led to a major flight of capital from India and seriously impacted the economy, maybe even wiping out new ventures by small time entrepreneurs. And what about the army’s morale? It is sad that members of the Indian media would try and belittle our soldiers who tramp through snow and slush and sleep under open skies in Siachen’s minus 50 degrees temperature to prevent Pakistani hordes from pouring into India. While the families of these journalists enjoy the comfort of their air-conditioned homes, children of army officers sometimes sleep in one-room bachelor flats because the army suffers from a chronic shortage of family accommodation.

Sometime you wish the army would really conduct a coup and shut down these blabbermouths who are working tirelessly to wreck the nation.

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Rakesh Krishnan Simha

Rakesh is a globally cited defence analyst. His articles have been quoted extensively by national and international defence journals and in books on diplomacy, counter-terrorism, warfare, and development of the global south.