Both sides of the political divide on social media have used fake images and screenshots to advance their agenda, and the Indian public has lapped it up.
New Delhi: Free online tools available on the internet have given users the power to morph social media posts as well. And in the hands of propagandists, these fake posts and ‘screenshots’ have become yet another powerful way to spread venom and gain political advantage.
Of course, a random user abusing someone would rarely go viral. But these fake screenshots are attributed to famous individuals, and the public laps it up.
Given that the Indian social media audience largely lacks awareness about misinformation, ‘prank’ posts are now being taken seriously, deepening the divide on social media.
Both sides use this tactic
It’s not as though only one side of the political divide is using this method — the targets of these ‘pranks’ include ‘liberal’ voices like Rana Ayyub, Faye D’Souza, Dhruv Rathee; ‘Right-wing’ voices like Shefali Vaidya; and even Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
In April, journalist and author Rana Ayyub was targeted by a fake tweet in which she was purportedly defending child rapists.
“Minor child rapists are also human, do they have no human rights. This Hindutva Government is bringing ordinance for death to child rapists just to hang Muslims in larger numbers. Muslims aren’t safe in India anymore,” the screenshot read.
Right-wing social media pages spread it like wildfire, her phone number and address were shared online, and she said she feared a mob lynching.
The last three days there has been a concerted effort in the form of multiple fake tweets, photoshopped tweets, morphed videos on twitter / fb that even the most sensible have fallen for and have gone viral. Those asking me to clarify, please use your own discretion. pic.twitter.com/alf3qkiQSq
— Rana Ayyub (@RanaAyyub) April 23, 2018
“In my case, almost every month, there are a series of fake tweets generated in my name where I am either endorsing terrorists in the name of Islam or supporting child rapists,” Ayyub told ThePrint.
In July, a similar controversy surrounded the executive editor of Mirror Now news channel, Faye D’Souza. The fictional tweet had D’Souza defending child trafficking by Christian missionaries in Jharkhand.
The tweet was obviously fake, and eventually, the Right-wing pages sharing the post had to delete them.
As the #MeToo movement began exposing the names of people from the media and entertainment industry who had sexually harassed and/or assaulted women, a fake account posted a fake Instagram chat with YouTuber Dhruv Rathee. In this chat, Rathee was asking for sexual favours.
The fake account was later deleted, but it did spread misinformation about Rathee.
These IT Cell workers can fall to any level for politics!
Fake account sharing a fabricated screenshot to malign the #MeToo movement and defame me
Improve your photoshop idiots, it’s very easy to tell that you used the InstaFake app on Android to fabricate this screenshot 😂 https://t.co/tr9nPvG4II
— Dhruv Rathee 🇮🇳 (@dhruv_rathee) October 14, 2018
Rathee said the downside of technology is that someone with evil intentions can do worse than what happened to him.
“If someone is seriously interested in destroying someone’s reputation, they can make a professionally Photoshopped image, where it’s impossible to tell the difference between real and fake. In that case it becomes extremely dangerous. All in all, it’s harder to prove you didn’t do something,” he told ThePrint.
A meme page, Desi Comics, created a fake news screenshot against comedian Sahil Shah, in which he was shown as a sexual harasser, at the peak of the #MeToo movement.
The comedian took no time to speak to the page administrator and get it removed before it could go viral. ThePrint asked him for comment, but he refused, saying he didn’t want to give this page any attention. The administrator of the page, however, admitted that it was done just to spread humour.
In May, Jignesh Mevani, an Independent MLA from Gujarat and well-known critic of the Modi government and the BJP, posted a morphed image of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Yogi Adityanath and Shefali Vaidya.
However, later, he deleted the tweet and apologised.
In September, Mumbai Congress president Sanjay Nirupam shared an image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi with extra food added to it. He told ThePrint that he knew the image was morphed, but he still shared it ‘just for fun’.
Mevani was at it again in September. He shared a morphed image in which a skull cap was added to the Prime Minister’s head, when he had gone to visit the Dawoodi Bohra community.
Who is to blame?
According to Stolen Memes, a Facebook page that posts screenshots of obvious fake news, people who see these memes cannot seem to differentiate between what’s fake and what’s real.
“We posted a funny fake news screenshot about (Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor’s son) Taimur being named Tenaliraman, along the lines of the viral Yogi Adityanath memes after the name of Allahabad was changed,” the page admin said.
“It was quite obvious that they would never do so, but some people started believing it. The number of such people is increasing because of cheaper data and lack of awareness.”
The situation is worse when this happens in regional languages.
“People relate to a post better when it’s written in their language. They tend to believe everything they see if it’s written in their language. They lack judgement when differentiating between a prank and news,” the administrator said.
Pratik Sinha, co-founder of the fact checking website AltNews, said, “People lack the awareness regarding how to interpret such sarcasm and push it forward considering it to be genuine information. That is how a prank transforms into misinformation”.
However, the real trouble begins when people in power start sharing misinformation, as Ayyub has experienced.
“This is done to discredit journalists with a voice and who are critical of the establishment. In my case, the fake Photoshopped tweets and videos were also shared by ministers in the ruling dispensation on their Facebook pages, which made things worse,” she said.
What do social media platforms say?
Responding to ThePrint’s queries about this phenomenon, a Twitter spokesperson who did not wish to be named said: “We see Twitter’s open and real-time nature as a powerful antidote to the spreading of all types of false information. Journalists, experts and engaged citizens tweet side-by-side, correcting and challenging public discourse in seconds.
“Our focus is on product, policy and enforcement innovations to address the behaviours which distort and detract from the public conversation on Twitter. For example, updating and expanding our rules to better reflect how we identify fake accounts, and what types of inauthentic activity violate our guidelines; and continuing to aggressively address spam and malicious automation.
“To that end we have made good progress, and in the first half of September, we challenged an average of 9.4 million accounts each week.”
Facebook did not respond to ThePrint’s repeated emails asking for comment.
Can legal action be taken?
Unlike parody pages/handles that promote hate speech on social media, legal action is possible against these fake posts.
Virag Gupta, an advocate practicing at the Supreme Court of India, said: “One should submit a complaint to the Twitter (or Facebook) grievance officer to get it removed as a first step.
“The person can also file a case under the Section 66A of the IT Act and get the person booked. If not satisfied with any of the above steps, one can go to the court and sue the person and ask for remedy or compensation for the loss one has suffered.”
However, the long waiting time and lack of adequate judicial infrastructure does add a big obstacle.
“The anonymity of the source (who made these fake images) can take a lot of time to investigate,” Gupta said.
So, what can be done about it?
ThePrint spoke to fact-checkers SM Hoaxslayer, AltNews and Boom FactCheck, and here are their suggestions on how to counter this growing problem.
1. Google search: Pankaj Jain, founder of SM Hoaxslayer, suggests the social media users must check the information on Google before sharing it blindly.
“Usually, the fake content is either too good to be true or controversial. In that case, it’s better to copy paste the headline and search it on Google. If it’s true, trusted news organisations must have covered it,” he says.
2. Ask for a scrolling video: AltNews’ Sinha suggests that “users should ask for video (screencast) as evidence, especially where information is either an alleged private communication or is transitory in nature. Video evidence is more difficult to manipulate as opposed to screenshots, which can be easily created using various tools”.
3. Be vigilant: Boom FactCheck’s managing editor Jency Jacob says “never share anything on social media without running some basic checks like searching for more credible links and being aware of the source of the information”.
Apart from these steps, one can also opt for a simple Google image reverse search, in which Google finds every possible place a picture has been shared. Tools like Twitter advanced search can help getting access to a particular tweet.
The response from the administrator of Desi Comics was written erroneously. We have rectified the same.