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R-Day riot and aftermath: How “fact checking” became the biggest form of fake news

'Fact-checking' is same old propaganda journalism, now wearing a different colour hat.

Here is an imaginary conversation.

You: Hello 101, please come quickly to my house No. 123 on XYZ street. It is on fire.

Fire station: Did you say that is your house, sir?

You: Yes, my house.

Fire station: Sir, our records indicate that the house is registered in the name of Mr. Shyam. Are you Mr. Shyam?

You: No, Mr. Shyam is my father. He is not here right now.

Fire station: Sir, you said before that this is your house. Now you have admitted to lying. I am afraid we will have to report you to the police for fraud.

You: Are you joking?

Fire station: No sir, just fact checking.

Now consider this. On Republic Day, a mob of “liberals” storms the Red Fort in Delhi. They climb the flagpoles and plant whatever flag they happened to bring with them. All day long, they riot in the streets. Nearly one hundred police personnel are injured and in hospital. One video shows these “liberals” tossing away the Indian tricolor into the distance, like it was a piece of garbage. Another video shows the “liberals” in tractors, chasing down policemen who are on foot, forcing the latter to jump into a ditch to save their lives.

How do you rescue your image after this?

That’s where “fact-checking” came in super handy for the liberals. Was it a “good flag” or a “bad flag” they planted on the Red Fort? A team of highly capable “fact checkers” volunteer to find out the truth. Within hours, the matter becomes clear. The “good flag” is supposed to be shaped like this or that, it is supposed to be this much long and that much wide. And with this information, the liberals recover. They are now on the front foot, talking down to you about your ignorance.

Did you see what happened? The debate was supposed to be about why a different flag was flown on the Red Fort on Republic Day. The “liberals” were supposed to answer why they used tractors to chase policemen into a ditch. None of that is happening. Instead, we are bogged down with details of size, shape, color and design of flags.

In other words, the “fact checkers” have managed to deflect the conversation. That was the whole point of the “fact check.” To change the subject. And it worked.

Every now and then, something comes along that opens up an entirely new form of warfare. It was in World War 2 that the importance of an air force came to be fully appreciated. Suddenly, the trench warfare of World War 1 became obsolete. Unless you could command the air, you were toast. In the last few days of the war, the Germans began using rockets. They were too late to turn the tide of the war, but the age of missiles was coming. The Cold War was all about missiles and warheads. Most recently, it is unmanned militarized drones. They made all the difference in the recent war between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

And so it is with propaganda warfare. Biased coverage, opinion pieces, on air spin are all still relevant tools. But the hottest new thing is “fact checkers.” Their job is to dismantle the narrative of the other side, by making people focus on marginal details instead of looking at what actually happened.

Consider what happened yesterday when some people protested against the folks who had blockaded Delhi’s border for months. How did the “liberals” respond? They started “fact-checking” the counter protesters! The fact checkers quickly spotted that many of the counter-protesters were “BJP supporters” instead of “locals.” Apparently, that de-legitimizes whatever they had to say.

Now you could ask : can’t BJP supporters be citizens and/or locals? And if they are not locals, so what? The liberals gathered at the protest are themselves from other states and most of their leaders have well known political affiliations. Why can’t the counter protesters have the same?

Good points. But you are still playing the game the “fact-checkers” wanted you to play. They are deflecting and forcing you to justify your legitimacy. As a consequence, they don’t have to answer your questions.

To stop playing their game, you have to first ask yourself what a fact checker is? Presumably, it means somebody who reports the facts. But wait!!! Didn’t we already have a class of professionals whose official job description is to report facts from the ground?

I remember. They were called “journalists.” What happened to them? I challenge any journalist to explain the difference between the official job description of journalists and fact checkers.

I know what happened to journalists. They got exposed for their institutional bias. And people no longer trust them to report facts. So what do they do? They come back wearing a fake mustache and beard claiming to be someone totally new and different. That’s what “fact checking” is. Same old propaganda journalism, now wearing a different colour hat.

The Republic Day riot was a watershed moment for media in India. Never before have “fact checkers” been used in such frontline roles and on such a scale in propaganda warfare. The game has changed. And not for the better.

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Abhishek Banerjee
Abhishek Banerjee is a math lover who may or may not be an Associate Professor at IISc Bangalore. He is the author of Operation Johar - A Love Story, a novel on the pain of left wing terror in Jharkhand, available on Amazon here.  

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