Fake News, the Desi way


Howard Rhinegold saw it before anyone: That, in the digital age, 'crap detection' (euphemistically  'critical consumption of content', if you like) would become a critical skill. If this needed any validation, one should look at India in the middle of this epidemic - not the one inflicted by the Bat-virus but rather one unleashed by the deluge of fake news. It's a sad spectacle: A billion people endlessly manipulated by WhatsApp messaging! And, true to form, the Indian trolls don't do nuanced nudges, carefully skirting around the boundaries of civility: They go naked, hairy, big and clear - flaunting falsities with confidence, certain that their forward-happy audience will spread the message with gusto.

There are two things such a deluge of detritus are designed to do. It is supposed to manipulate a vast majority of people and make them believe something (that the Virus is a Chinese bio-agent), exaggerate something (that the crisis has been caused mainly by one Islamic congregation) or overlook something (like the terrible situation of migrant workers caught out in a poorly planned lockdown). But for The others, those who may spend that additional 30-seconds on Google before hitting the forward button, it is designed to generate cynicism: To accept that nothing can be done against the avalanche of misinformation. This second group of people may not buy the misinformation itself, but they would eventually succumb to the assumption behind it all - that their compatriots are stupid and beyond redemption. 

Low-trust Society

Of course, misinformation is not an Indian problem. It is the greatest challenge - notwithstanding the Bat-virus and Joker at the White House - confronting humanity right now. Rhinegoldian prescience looks too gentle: You can be eclectic while consuming content but not when you are drowning in it. Every government, when not busy attacking its own populace with military-grade psych-ops, are trying to find a legislative route to control the spread, only if to preserve its own monopoly over it.

But, in India at present, the economics of its origin (billionaire Raj), the purpose of its politics (consolidation of majority) and the mechanics of its spread (mobile phones) have reached a terrifying singularity. It's the big-brother-meets-free-market territory, where truth is a privatised commodity and nudge has come to shove. This is no longer 'fake news': This is an alternative world, a portal into a never-before-land of an industrial-ideological complex. Dressed as free-speech or entertainment, the ever-gushing fountains of crap lie just outside, but not too far from, the State, in a twilight zone of belief, where no monopolies could be granted or taken. There are no legal remedies against such an all-pervasive threat, and only two ways out. Either this eventually leads to a complete breakdown of institutions, or, Indians develop a redemptive 'herd immunity' through a new architecture of trust.

Indeed, this absence of trust is the first reason why we are here in the first place. The English government may have been gone for a good 73 years but its ghost stayed alive and kicking. It could always be found in the little things - all those thousands of forms, the ink mark on the finger every time one votes, the power of the official over life and death! The Raj is still everywhere, from the police beating up the poor vegetable sellers to people asked to line up to clap for the Great Leader. It is finely dusted in legal codes and apparently on display in the pomp and ceremonies. The Republic was built around ever-elaborate hide-and-seek, a government preening in every life in every detail, trying to catch minutest of transgressions. However, much like a family with adolescents, as the government assumed the people to be children, the people assumed the government to be an idiot, and each carried on their own way. The great quinquennial, the vote festivals of democracy, didn't really change much and the vote - for most of the Republic's life and now - was meant to be a homage rather than a mandate.

Herds for 'Herd Immunity'

After 1947's midnight hour, no one in India ever said something akin to 'now that we have made India, let's make Indians'. For most of the founding generation, it was no founding: India was always there and they just affected a change of government. So, while a constitution was written, there was no corresponding legal or educational reform. Big pronouncements about big issues were done in big words, but the everyday life of the little men was mostly left untouched. Except, of course, suddenly India was not one country but two and seeds of permanent civil war in South Asia have been sown. While we woke up to the tryst of our presumed destiny, we were different people than how we might have set off. But, as if not to disrupt the spell of midnight, we did not ask the uncomfortable questions.

Of course, as Faiz Ahmed Faiz clearly saw, the morning after was a very different experience from that midnight. Yet we clung to the midnight's hopes, living in the dreams of a secularised, universal man, building a big state focusing on the big picture. That colonial architecture to never to trust one another and yet bow down in front of the text was left in its place. A new meritocracy to command the new socialised economy was convened and was promptly captured by the dominant castes and powerful interests. It was Deja vú all over again.

This left the hole through which the fakery sips in. This is a perfect storm - the absence of a social architecture of trust meets the blind faith in the text in the technological paradise of an eco-chamber, where nothing but what you want to hear is audible. A low-trust society that trusts all WhatsApp wisdom. The lack of trust in one another has somehow translated into blind faith in whatever is received via phone. This isn't just about naivete or technology-induced brain-fade. Instead, deep down, this is perhaps our educational code: Written in English and Hindi, sounding officious, big names, must be true!

The only thing now standing between the mind-machine and sense-preservation is language. India's languages were a barrier to making 'Indian', but now they are protective shields. The factories of fakery can't master all the different nuances of hate as practised in different corners of India. One kind of particularism defeats another, cultural antibodies fight off the viral spread of phobias. It's a paradox: Herds fight off herding! India's diversity is making the fringes immune to the attempts at homogenised dominion.

Little man, what now?

The hope of the little man always rested in the incompetence of big men and this may turn out to be the case again. One redeeming feature of this deluge of fake news is that people who are doing it is refreshingly incompetent. They may be telling lies a thousand times, but they easily contradict themselves. They hopelessly cling on to authority from abroad - anyone for an IMF webinar chaired by Raghuram Rajan - and dive into the deep-fake world of videos without first mastering the art of script-writing or editing. A friend used to say that he could tell a software was written in an offshore facility by looking at the error messages: The assumption that the audience is stupid allows a callousness which, in turn, makes the impact less malignant than it could be.

But the real virus, novel Corona, has created a different situation altogether. With it, the news cycles are faster, threats are real and the little language bubbles that saved us are prisons by themselves. It brought the government everywhere, disabling the hide-and-seek we forever played. In a country where everyone always sought exceptions, following rules has become a life-and-death affair. The demand to submit our bodies to the state has transformed, in a few short weeks, to a demand to submit our minds. The prison has come home.

However, the setting is such that breaking is easier than making. The alternative reality is based on some kind of hope, even if it's a perverse one of a mass murderer. At a time so dark and uncertain, even straws to clutch are hard to find. The fakery, unleashed, as it keeps breaking unchecked, is now corroding away the very ground it stands on. The monster is out of the bottle but it's about to eat its masters.

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