Of Fake News and Other Pressing Issues

I am part of a few Whatsapp groups filled with family members who spam forwards, which can more often than not be classified into three broad categories: politics, adult jokes, and as is common among most family groups, hoaxes. I’m not sure how many years the Indian national anthem can be declared the best in the world by UNESCO, and how many times the photo of an Indian map inscribed on the trees lining a highway to Bhopal can be voted the best photo in the world. Footnotes like “No Photoshop, this is real!” do nothing but add credibility to the claim, right? Now the forwards have progressed to the likes of “The Obamas have moved to a rented apartment post presidency. They don’t own a house till date. Incredible example of integrity! The less said about Indian politicians the better.” I’m all for calling out corruption but this is ridiculous – the house the Obamas are currently leasing is worth well over 5 million dollars, and they have owned multiple properties. During the recent tiff between Panneerselvam and Sasikala in Tamil Nadu, a few members of my family praised Modi as the mastermind behind OPS growing a spine. Political gain notwithstanding, I was taken aback by how ludicrous such assertions were and how easily everyone seems to fall prey to them, given that there isn’t a iota of proof backing them up. These messages may be harmless. But since very few people fact check them, they end up inculcating a belief in rumors, lies and propaganda.

The problem is not just restricted to Whatsapp, though it does contribute in a large fashion to the spread of rumors. The President of the United States is fond of tweeting lies, which his team has coolly labeled “alternative facts” – something which they are also quite adept in propagating.

Sure, the Left is not above accusation when it comes to this. Trump never gave an interview to People magazine twenty years ago calling Republican voters the dumbest in the country who would eat up his lies. He isn’t stupid, that would be political suicide. But the implications of such rumors are far more significant when it comes directly from an institution such as the White House.

No, the crowds at Trump’s inauguration weren’t the largest in the history of presidential inaugurations. No, there weren’t millions of illegal voters who voted for the opposing candidate. No, the Bowling Green Massacre didn’t happen. And no, the murder rate isn’t the highest it’s been in close to 50 years. There is no evidence to back up such tall claims. But the damage is done – stuff like this has already been lapped up by scores of people, not just in America, but across the world.

There’s no denying that the President actively engages in wild conspiracy theories. When he gets called out, Trump ends up slamming the channels that disagree with him, calling them fake news. He still continues to claim the election was rigged against him, which is baffling considering that he won. He even picks out individuals and calls them out by name in tweet tirades. Ironic, considering that Melania’s core message as FLOTUS is attacking cyber bullying. To add fuel to the fire, one of Trump’s senior advisers recently went on the air to proclaim that the powers of the President “will not be questioned”, an Orwellian statement if there ever was one.

“Alternative facts” such as those perpetrated by the White House in the recent past, which apparently nobody is supposed to question, have led to strong support of the Muslim ban and people to shout at immigrants to “go back to your own country”. I had experienced this a few years back, when a drunk soccer fan at Penn State shouted the same at myself and a bunch of my friends, during the 2014 USA-Portugal FIFA World Cup game. This was a one-off incident, whereas Trump using phrases like “bad dudes” and “bad hombres” to describe Muslims and Mexicans has lent credence to a sense of bullying that seems to have become far more widespread at face value today. It seems to have fueled a sense of nationalistic pride bordering on jingoism in a good percentage of the American population. It seems to have become an epidemic.

Popular alt-right websites pick up rumors from uncorroborated sources and transmit them to all. Trump picks this up and tweets about it. Millions believe it and retweet it. This leads Trump to think that he’s right and the outlets from where he got said bit of news to think that they’re right. But just because two parties think they’re right doesn’t make it true. There was a good segment about this on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver this Sunday, aptly labeled “Trump vs Truth”.

No matter what Steve Bannon and his team have claimed, Breitbart is not news. No matter what Alex Jones and his team have claimed, Infowars is not news. No matter what the White House thinks, Sean Hannity and Piers Morgan are not political pundits. They are biased channels which only validate things that Trump believes, but do little to vindicate him. And the President placing blind belief in them could have severe repercussions for the country.

I’m speculating, but I do think that if the Democrats were in the White house right now and if something like the Russian hack had come to light, all hell would have broken loose. The current administration however seems to be facing one embarrassment after another, the culpability for which has been denied, deflected, dismissed, or actively lied about, leading to not much being done despite several calls for impeachment.

Trump clearly thrives on this chaotic 24-hour news cycle that he’s created for himself. Given all the media coverage that’s surrounding every little move made by the White House, rumor or otherwise, I’m afraid the world would have become desensitized if a major scandal does ever come to light. By then, it may just be a case of the Boy Who Cried Wolf.

Happy Valentine’s Day, I guess.

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