Fake news: Beware or it’ll get you

Just like it did us.

WrittenBy:Kshitij Malhotra
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Fake news can get the best of us, by which we mean all the good folks here at Newslaundry. Okay, apologies for that very smug opening line.


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Let’s try again.

In case you’re living under a rock or get your daily dose of news from postcard.news, which are essentially the same things, that so-called Arundhati Roy quote on “70 lakh Indian soldiers” not being able to “defeat Kashmiris” was all bunkum, as pointed out by The Wire.

We’d know a thing or two about it since we republished an op-ed responding to that fake quote from Fair Observer, our US-based content partner. We have, of course, apologised for our editorial oversight and retracted the piece. Ditto, Fair Observer.

But that’s not enough. Since we’re old school and believe in being better late than never and all that, we thought it’d be nice to pick up from where The Wire left.

But, first, a little background.

The controversy surrounding Paresh Rawal’s tweet expanded beyond the realm of Twitter and spilled on to television studios on Monday night when CNN News18’s Bhupendra Chaubey asked the question, “Has Rawal reduced Army operations to a joke?”, on his show The Viewpoint. Before the show went on air, Chaubey himself attracted criticism when he tweeted asking whether Rawal was right in asking for Roy to “be tied as a human shield”. Chaubey has now deleted that particular tweet, but here’s a screenshot.

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In subsequent tweets he clarified that he had merely raised a question and not endorsed Rawal’s view.

On Republic TV, Arnab Goswami attacked “one-book whiner wonder like Arundhati Roy” for attacking the Indian Army.

However, as The Wire illustrated, the entire episode of outrage – Rawal’s tweet, the ensuing debates and comments by eminent news anchors – was based on a piece of fake news peddled by popular Right-wing websites like postcard.news, Satyavijayi.com, Theindianvoice.com, among others. The near-identical articles on these websites, published on May 17, made the false claim that in a recent interview to “Pakistan newspaper Times of Islamabad” Roy said, “India cannot achieve its objective in the occupied valley even if its army deployment raises from 7 lakh to 70 lakh.”

The article in the Times of Islamabad, which incidentally is a website and not a newspaper, published on May 16, states that Roy made the above comment “during her visit to Srinagar” and not in an interview. Notably, the article with the by-line ‘News Desk’ does not attribute the information to any source. An almost identical report, with two additional paragraphs, appeared on Geo TV, headlined, “Arundhati Roy calls Indian aggression in Kashmir ‘shameful”, the same day. Geo TV has taken the piece down from its website but it is still available on the website, defence.pk.

The Wire has stated that the Geo TV article “attributed her [Roy’s] quotes to Kashmir Media Service”; this is erroneous since the piece quotes Kashmir Media Service to report on the alleged death of two youths in Kashmir, unrelated to Roy’s comments. This would explain why Kashmir Media Service, which The Wire has identified as “the propaganda arm of a Kashmiri militant organisation in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir” doesn’t have any mention of Roy’s fake comments.

A brief version of the same report also appeared on the Radio Pakistan website on May 16, uploaded at 5.45 pm.

Desi tadka

What started off as a piece of fake news from across the border was soon being touted as fact by our swadeshi websites the very next day. The postcard.news article was posted on a Facebook page called ‘The Nationalist’ which, in turn, was shared by Rawal on Twitter and prompted his tirade against Roy.

As penance for our sins, we at Newslaundry, decided to reach out to postcard.news founder Mahesh Vikram Hegde. He told us that there was a video that showed Roy making the comments Postcard attributed to her. “You can go on YouTube and see an interview Arundhati Roy gave on Pakistan TV,” Hegde said.

When asked why the video wasn’t included in the original article published on his site, he in turn asked for Newslaundry to share the video of Roy’s denial with him. A YouTube search for videos on ‘Arundhati Roy Kashmir’ uploaded in the last month shows snippets of an interview to American media outlet Democracy Now! from 2010 and a discussion at the University of Westminster, London in 2011.

Postcard.news did not attempt to contact Roy to verify claims made in the story. When asked why they did not take the pains to do so, Hegde told Newslaundry: “Why should I?” On further probing, he hung up the phone.

We then reached out to Sumit Agarwal, a member of Satyavijayi.com’s editorial team. He said his team did not get in touch with Roy before the story was published. “Hum aise logo se baat nahi karte (we don’t talk to such people),” Agarwal said. He went on to say that the website does its due diligence before putting up articles. “When we get a news, we verify it. Our people research it, look for a credible source – ANI, PTI, any YouTube video or some credible mainstream media source. Only after that we publish an article,” he told Newslaundry. Earlier in the conversation he asked us to read a Wikipedia page on journalistic ethics.

Agarwal said in this case, he had confirmation of the story from a credible mainstream source, though he didn’t reveal what this source was despite repeated requests (contradicting Hegde, he said that there was no video evidence of Roy’s comments). Despite Agarwal’s claims, the vetting process employed by Satyavijayi.com clearly was of no use in this instance.

But, of course, an apology was out of the question, Agarwal stated. “We may take off the news, but we won’t apologise to somebody like Arundhati Roy. She has more than enough reasons to apologise to all of India,” he stated.

The foreign hand

Newslaundry also reached out to ARY News and Geo News — mainstream Pakistan-based news outlets — to know what came over them to put out a story with absolutely no basis. Geo News Director (News) Rana Jawad told us that they have pulled down the piece since they were alerted that Roy “retracted” the statement. We informed him that Roy had, in fact, said that she never made these statements, which is a little different from retracting the statement. Jawad said they are trying to figure out the veracity of the news item and that they published the piece after it appeared on the front page of The News.

ARY News Bureau Chief Sabir Shakir also said they picked up the news from multiple sources, though he didn’t confirm if The News was one of them. (The Fair Observer piece linked to the quote published on ARY News.) Shakir wasn’t sure if ARY News will take down the report, when we pestered him further for an answer, he asked us to “leave it” and have a “nice sleep”. In his defence, it was 11 in the night.

The News is one of Pakistan’s largest circulating English newspapers and enjoys a fairly decent reputation. (In fact, The Wire has cited them in a story on Pakistani media’s denial of surgical strikes.) However, a senior Pakistani journalist, Umer Farooq, who also contributes to Newslaundry, told us that The News is the best example of commercialisation of news. “Largest newspaper but no editorial control. I wonder if they have an editor nowadays. I don’t think so,” he said, adding that barring a few rare exceptions, the institution of the editor had lost power owing to the commercialisation of news.

On May 16, The News indeed published the story with Roy’s quote on its front page with the headline, Indian atrocities in IHK shameful: Arundhati Roy. And guess what? It cites “the Indian media” as the source. Not one or two news organisations but the entire Indian media. We reached out to Fasih-Ur-Rehman, Political Affairs Editor at The News to know more about this source but were told that he could not be of any help to us. He asked us to reach out to Talat Aslam, Senior Editor, The News, Karachi. Our calls to Aslam’s office and his mobile number yielded no results. But given his Twitter handle states that he is “just as obsessed with the sublime as with the ridiculous”, we’re hoping to reach out to him soon and get a clear answer on the origins of Roy’s fake quote. This piece will be updated as and when we succeed.

Be that as it may, there is an important lesson here to learn: All fake news is bad, but some fake news is better than others. At least, qualitatively speaking. This bad-good breed of fake news doesn’t have the usual telltale sign of regular fake news – you won’t find typos or repeated attacks on ‘pseudo-sickular-libtards’. It is refined, can appear on mainstream news organisations and therefore, is even more deceptive. Which is why you need to be sharper than ever to detect it. We, at Newslaundry, certainly hope to be so.

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