With the rising number of lynching incidents across the country owing to the dissemination of fake news on social media, the Supreme Court last year ordered the Centre and state governments to step up and curb the generation of fake news. The apex court had also asked state governments to form special task forces to gather information on people spreading fake news.
However, it seems the newly-elected Congress government in Madhya Pradesh is doing precisely the opposite. Instead of countering fake news, it’s provided police protection to a man who appears to be a serial generator of fake news.
The person in question is 21-year-old Abhishek Mishra, accused of spreading fake news through his Twitter account and his website ViralinIndia.net. He was detained in November 2016 for posting an allegedly derogatory and fake piece of news about then chief minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan. Mishra was then arrested on January 22 by the Delhi police’s cyber cell after a complaint was filed against him by a Delhi-based woman for publishing posts hurting religious sentiments. He was arrested from his rented accommodation in Kohefiza area of Bhopal and taken to Delhi where he was produced in a local court. After being remanded to seven days’ police custody, Mishra was released on bail on January 29.
Mishra is allegedly close to Congress leaders in Madhya Pradesh and to the Congress IT cell. His arrest clearly infuriated the state government, because MP’s home department wrote a letter to the Delhi police commissioner protesting the Delhi police’s actions in arresting Mishra without informing the state police.
A press statement in this regard was released by Suresh Gupta, Joint Director, Directorate of Public Relations, Madhya Pradesh.
Sources close to the government said Mishra returned to Bhopal after his release on January 29. On February 1, he was summoned by Chief Minister Kamal Nath to Mantralaya Vallabh Bhavan where, in the presence of the newly-appointed DGP VK Singh, the CM gave directives to provide Mishra with police security.
Newslaundry spoke to several top officials to establish why Mishra was given police protection in the first place but no one seemed to have a clear answer. Mishra himself claims police security was provided on his own appeal. He told Newslaundry he had sent the CM a written request, following which directives were given to the DGP and the state intelligence department to provide him with security.
Mishra also says he’s independent and not connected to the Congress. Yet his social media profiles are peppered with his “connections” including photographs he’s taken with Rahul Gandhi and Kamal Nath.
But what exactly does Mishra do?
The Facebook page of his website ViralinIndia.net—which was suspended last month after an abuse report—claims it’s “within the top 200 websites” in India with a readership of over 10 crore. Formed in 2015, the Facebook page says ViralinIndia.net reaches 5 crore people every day, with some of its posts receiving half a million likes. It also shares its posts on its Twitter handle.
A quick scan of the tweets paints a dubious picture of the veracity of the website’s content. Mishra’s own Twitter account—@meamabhishek—has over 64,000 followers. He deleted all his posts after he was released by the Delhi police.
Mishra’s personal Twitter account.
Here are some of the tweets from the website’s handle, or retweeted by the handle, translated from Hindi:
1. Dalit student refuses to take a medal from President Ram Nath Kovind. Student said, “Forgive me, can’t take medal from you.”
2. BJP leader defames the relationship between a father and daughter.
3. Sikh community enraged over the shaven moustache and beard of Manmohan Singh. Decides to teach Anupam Kher a lesson.
4. As no hotel will accommodate him, Modi to stay in the palace of Congress leader Scindia.
5. Modi in trouble after disrespecting the Indian Army.
And this is just to name a few.
Newslaundry spoke to Mishra and asked him about the “news” posted by his website. He said: “First of all, there is no rule of law on fake news. So nobody can claim that I have made any fake news. Nobody can accuse me of generating fake news as there is no law for it.”
Newslaundry asked Mishra why he had been arrested. He said: “I have been booked for hurting religious sentiments. I don’t know what religious sentiments I have hurt.” Mishra says one-and-a-half years ago, he had published that namaz had been offered on the moon. He claims an “idiot journalist from The Times of India termed the news as fake”. Mishra, however, insists it was real news. “The video is available on YouTube. The video was released by NASA, showing an American journalist who went to the moon and then offered namaz there. I even told the judge that I can show him the video if he wants.”
The post about namaz on the moon.
Mishra says this is politics played by the BJP. “Elections are coming, which is why they arrested me.” He refuses to elaborate on other charges against him. “I will talk about it to the court.”
One of ViralinIndia.net’s posts is about how the UAE king “broke protocol” and sent Rahul Gandhi back to India in “the UAE government’s fighter jet”. When asked about the veracity of the “news”, Mishra says: “He came in the Dubai government’s plane. It can be of any type.”
Another post on the website says “RBI governor Urijit Patel declares Modi as the most useless prime minister”. Mishra got irritated when questioned about it. “I have not posted anything related to Urijit Patel and Modi. How can you say that someone put it on our website? It’s a fake screenshot.”
The post about RBI governor Urijit Patel’s comments on PM Modi.
A third post on the website says “Shivraj Singh Chauhan humiliated by Amit Shah and Arun Jaitley after losing election”, with a caption saying, “Amit Shah bole peeche hatt Shivraj, Amit Shah ne bhi Jhatka hath”. Mishra says, “That was not our post. We took it from Patrika and published it.” Newslaundry checked Patrika and while they did carry a story, it was not the story described in ViralinIndia.net.
The post on Shivraj Singh Chauhan being ‘humiliated’.
On January 31, fact-checking website BOOM interviewed Mishra in a piece titled “The Rise And Fall of Fake News Site ‘Viral In India’”. The piece debunks several “news” posts on Mishra’s website. It also says: “Not once or twice but three times during our conversation, Mishra who claims to champion the cause of ‘true news’ said that he would teach fact checkers like BOOM and AltNews a lesson. Mishra accused fact checkers for (sic) misleading people by calling the reports published by his website, fake.”
Mishra says the article doesn’t matter. “Nobody has any evidence against me. There is no law about fake news in India. Therefore, nobody can accuse me.”
Newslaundry contacted Jency Jacob, managing editor of BOOM, and Pratik Sinha of Alt News to ask them about Mishra and his reports. Both unanimously said Mishra feeds misinformation to the public.
Jacob calls Mishra “dangerous”. “Such kinds of people are extremely dangerous as there was no remorse when we spoke to him. When we gave him very specific examples of the 10 stories done by us in order to bring his notice to the fake news put out by him, there was a lot of bluster. He obviously knew that they don’t follow any journalistic norms to write any of these stories. They’re just writing propaganda and people are reading it. There was no remorse about contributing to misinformation online.”
On January 12, Alt News had debunked an article which claimed former CBI director Alok Verma’s resignation letter called Narendra Modi “the most corrupt prime minister of independent India”. Alt News traced the article to a Facebook page called “I Support Ravish Kumar”. Alt News’s Pratik Sinha says Mishra runs that page, and also runs other pages called “I Support Mamata Banerjee”, “I Support Rajdeep Sardesai” and “I Support Barkha Dutt”.
Sinha says: “By creating these pages, this guy has created an entire empire of followers who are anti-BJP and to them, feeds such misinformation. There are millions of followers on some of these pages and this guy makes money by ad-clicks on those pages. I don’t know whether he is getting money from the party or not. I don’t think the guy even has any ideology. His only motive in life is to make a quick buck.”
BOOM had asked Mishra about the article on Alok Verma’s resignation letter calling Modi corrupt, and asked who his source was. He had responded: “Mr Verma had talked to me directly.”
The post about Alok Verma.
Pratik Sinha points out that the resignation letter was made public and had no mention of Modi, despite Mishra’s claims. Sinha says, “Abhishek Mishra puts out serial misinformation. The pages that he runs puts out misinformation but it is more of a political nature.” Sinha says this misinformation isn’t “dangerous” to the extent that it doesn’t support hatred—which has an effect in the long run. “Mishra does political propaganda, and that should not happen.” He says what Mishra does is being done by both sides.
Newslaundry contacted Vyapam whistleblower Anand Rai, who was promised a ticket by Congress in the 2018 state elections in MP which was later denied. Surprisingly, he came out in support of Mishra: “There is no law for fake news in our country. So technically, nobody can accuse him of fake news. BJP people are also involved in creating such news, so what is wrong if he is doing it from the side of the Congress?”
Details of the complaint against Mishra
According to Anyesh Roy, DCP of the Delhi police cyber cell, a complaint was filed against Mishra by a Delhi-based woman. “The complaint mentioned that he has been putting vulgar, offensive and inflammatory stuff on religious lines on his platform. On the basis of that complaint, we did our duty and arrested him.”
Roy told Newslaundry that 10 laptops were recovered from Mishra. He also says the total number of followers Mishra has across his platforms is about 4 million. “The modus operandi of such people is to create accounts on social media and then increase the followership of the account or profile by posting provocative, offensive and vulgar content. Once the traffic increases, you can monetise it using advertisements, or use it for your vested interest.”
Roy says Mishra had “initially tried” advertisements. “But subsequently, he started using it [his platforms] for vested interests as he was getting more monetary gain. We have not reached the money trail yet as in such cases, money is not paid through banks. However, we are continuing with our investigation. Hopefully we will get more details soon.”
Mishra’s police protection
Newslaundry repeatedly contacted Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Kamal Nath and Home Minister Bala Bachchan to ask about the police protection accorded to Mishra. Neither were available for comment. The story will be updated once they respond.
Newslaundry asked Ashok Barnwal, Principal Secretary to the Chief Minister, about Mishra’s police protection. He said, “The Chief Minister cannot answer this question. You should contact the Directorate of Public Relations. We cannot comment on it.”
Suresh Gupta, Joint Director, Directorate of Public Relations in Madhya Pradesh, told Newslaundry: “We don’t have any role in providing him police protection. We have just released a statement which was sent to us by the home department. Our statement was only about the procedural flaw made by the Delhi police—that they arrested him without informing the local police—and nothing more than that. Whether this person is good or bad—we don’t know. It’s the job of the investigation and cyber cell to find out what he does.”
Newslaundry contacted Narendra Saluja, spokesperson of the Madhya Pradesh Congress, but he did not respond to the questions raised by this reporter.
When Newslaundry contacted DGP VK Singh and asked him about the police protection given to Mishra, he said: “Police protection is provided to people who have threat perception and assessment of threat perception. I think the Inspector General of Police, Bhopal, has given him protection. You should ask him.”
Newslaundry contacted Jaydeep Prasad, Inspector General of Police, Bhopal, but he refused to comment on the issue.