The article, which in its original version carried a photograph of a young girl holding a microphone, claimed the questions had put Gandhi in a spot, eliciting audience applause, and forcing the Congress party to cut the live telecast of the interaction. In a subsequent version, Mynation.com removed the picture of the girl and quoted the secretary of Congress Overseas Secretary Arathi Krishnan, who supposedly said that Gandhi had answered the young girl’s questions with a counter question of his own.
The article was shared by a number of people on social media, including a Central Board Director of RBI S Gurumurthy. Other portals, like Postcard News and Rightlog.in also picked it up. Though not quite paragons of accuracy, these portals did manage to create a storm on Twitter with thousands of retweets.
The Mynation.com article claimed the girl asked “how Rahul Gandhi who speaks against caste and religious discrimination, displays his Hindu-ness by applying ashes on his forehead and going to temples in Gujarat and wears the kufis (traditional cap that Muslims wear) while visiting Kashmir.”
Her second question, according to the article, was “Congress prides itself for having ruled India for several decades. The welfare and development that were not achieved then, will be done now?”
Only thing is, the supposed interaction never took place. The fact-checking website Altnews.in debunked the article, and found that the picture of the girl was actually a screengrab from a YouTube video from three years ago, of a local speech competition held in Mulund in Mumbai. The closest she came to politics in her speech was a reference to Modi’s Beti Bachao programme. Two journalists, who were present at Rahul Gandhi’s event in Dubai, confirmed to Altnews that no such interaction had taken place.
Pratik Sinha, founder of Altnews.in, told Newslaundry that the news item had also appeared in a couple of Tamil newspapers. “We do not carry an expose piece unless it is something blatantly false. The fact that this news appeared in mainstream vernacular newspapers gave it a cloak of validation. People are more circumspect if something appears only on the web.”
Although Mynation.com removed it later, the image of the young girl was also carried in these newspapers. Online portals like Postcard News and Rightlog also published the picture, while one of them later took it down. Besides the taint of fake news, it also raises questions of impropriety—using a minor’s image without permission in an undisguised act of misrepresentation.
Newslaundry spoke to the family of the girl in question, who is a minor. The father of the girl confirmed the picture was his daughter’s but said they were unaware of it being used in any article. He added that no permissions had been sought for it, nor had his daughter ever been to Dubai. “She is preparing for her CA entrance examinations so I don’t want her to be disturbed by the news,” he said, wishing not to be identified for reasons of privacy.
We sent a list of questions to Abhijit Majumder, the Editor in Chief of Mynation.com. Here’s the response:
We ran the story based on information we obtained from reliable sources. We confirmed it with Congress’s overseas secretary Aarathi Krishnan and her office. While we do not have the video, we have enough phone and other trail to defend our story should we need to. MyNation stands by its story
Sinha noted that fake news as a phenomenon in India has reached a level where it is nigh-impossible to counter it. “We cater to the urban middle classes, but large parts of rural India have no access to any fact-checking entity,” he said. Therefore, fake news such as the above, spreads like wildfire and has the potential to cause harm.
That the news industry suffers from a major trust deficit is no longer news. While targeting Rahul Gandhi is nothing new, this seems to be part of BJP’s strategy to project the 2019 elections as a Presidential-style contest between PM Modi and Gandhi. Irrespective of the facts, the contrast between a fumbling Rahul Gandhi and a confident Modi with his scripted interviews, sets the stage for a two-way battle between them. At least that’s what the BJP hopes, even though our polity is constructed differently. Sinha adds that this also fits in well with the party’s refrain that there is no alternative to Modi in the next general elections. With elections merely months away, the fake news factory is only just warming up.
The story has been updated with My Nation Editor’s response.