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During my time away, a story that fascinated me — in a train-wreck kind of way, and as a cautionary tale of the danger of the media disseminating half-baked news — relates to the murder of one Paresh Mesta. The India Today channel and its consulting editor Shiv Aroor played a lead role in propagating the story; social media backlash then prompted Aroor to write an extended defense of his actions. Here it is, and it is worth reading in full as an exemplar of everything that is wrong with the media in general, and TV news in particular.

The first four paras are an extended ‘woe is me’ pity-party aiming to paint himself as the victim, and an attempt to stake out the high moral ground. Skip lightly over those, and consider the real story, which begins with paragraph five and the tweet that started it all:

This, says Aroor, was deemed a “story” worth following up because it was tweeted by an elected representative. And so, he says, the IT reporter in the area filed a follow up “quoting sources”. Here is the report he cites; read it carefullyand see if you can find a single source being quoted. Also note, vide this report, how quickly a Union minister latched on to the incident and gave it a political coloration.

But most importantly, note this: In the follow-up report that Aroor presents as exhibit A in defense of his brand of journalism, the reporter has not spoken to anyone from police/law enforcement to find out what actually did happen. What follows is a startling abdication of every single journalistic norm (Emphasis mine):

Deciding that this would be our top story at 5pm, we invited both the police and BJP MP Shobha Karandlaje to join us on our show. Given logistical constraints on the ground, the option was provided to pre-record with both or either. While Shobha Karandlaje took our questions, the police did not join us on the show.

A tweet promoting the show carried the gruesome allegations of the BJP MP and sources on the ground – a tweet that I personally composed. Unlike my earlier tweet, this one didn’t carry quotes indicating that it was an allegation.

Starting at the top: On what basis did Aroor decide this was the lead story? At this point, 24 hours after the body was discovered, all he had was the intemperate allegation of a politician with a long history of fomenting communal trouble. Note that as soon as the body was discovered, Karandlaje began to talk of ‘jihadi forces’ and of the ‘targeted killing of Hindu activists’. Note also that even as she was busy using the killing of a young boy to further her party’s political ends, she latched onto another incident to light further fires:

In actual fact, however, the girl in question was attempting to escape the attentions of a stalker, Ganesh Eashwar Naik.

This, then, is the person on whose unsupported word Aroor based an editorial decision on. Note, further, that his focus is on “getting police on the show” — not first checking with the police to find out what the story really is. And he compounds his criminal error when he, in his own words, “personally composed” a tweet carrying the allegations — without quotes, or other indications to suggest they were merely allegations. In other words Aroor, who starts off with a verbose defense of his journalistic integrity, took an allegation and converted it into a personal attestation.

Much is then made of how Aroor in a subsequent broadcast asked Karandlaje if she had any specific proof to back up her allegations. Which begs the question: Isn’t that what you ask first, before you decide if the allegation deserves air time? Giving a fact-free allegation considerable air time, giving it your imprimatur by airing it as fact sans the telltale quote marks, and then asking if there is any proof is so far removed from basic journalism that it constitutes a sackable offense were it a tyro; when the “consulting editor” of a major channel does this, it is way beyond the pale. And then there is this:

Later that evening, the police, which had sparked its own controversy by declaring that the death was a “samanya saavu”, released a Q&A report with a forensics doctor, a document that appeared to fully contradict the BJP’s explosive charges. I happened to be among the first to tweet this out:

Wait, what?! How did the police “spark its own controversy”? The meaning of the police statement is clear — or would be, if you weren’t determined to see it through a predetermined lens: the police is saying, merely, that this is not a communal incident. Apparently Aroor believes he fully fulfilled his responsibility as a senior journalist by suggesting — some 48 hours after he decided to run a full fledged story based on an unconscionable tweet — that the BJP should now explain the basis of its charges:

And then, this:

The following day, Karnataka CM Siddaramaiah tweeted that the death of Paresh Mesta was “unfortunate” – a curious choice of word. Just as the BJP was certain this was a gruesome murder, was he certain this wasn’t murder at all? Could a murder ever be “unfortunate”? Was he simply alleging that this wasn’t murder, but a natural death, much like the Karnataka Police had done the previous day?

Seriously, is this guy compos mentis? “Could a murder ever be “unfortunate”?”, he asks. Sorry, but what the actual fuck does that even mean? And then he goes on to parse the CM’s statement, and in the process put words in the mouth of the police — note that the police did not say it was a natural death; that is not what “saamanya saavu” meant.

And then there is this (emphasis mine):

The following morning, putting the spotlight on the political war that had broken out, we planned a morning face-offbetween the ruling Congress and the opposition BJP on the issue. While the BJP joined us, the Congress apparently declined, forcing us to plan a face-off between the BJP and a member of the CPI (considering the allegations were of a political killing). Here’s that full broadcast:

“…forcing us to plan a face-off…”?!!!! Really? By then, four days had passed; communal tensions had been created by an unsubstantiated allegation — and Aroor admits that the allegations are unsubstantiated — and yet this consulting editor is still riding the fake news for all it is worth. His focus is on the next sensational talk fest, the next “show”, the next spin.

Related reading: The Rise of the Pseudo-Event

Remember what he says at the outset?:

I’ve been branded a communal hatemonger, a rabble-rouser and a plainly bad journalist who deliberately picked up the Paresh Mesta story with the specific intention of, among other things, “scoring TRPs”, “fanning communal tensions before the Karnataka elections”, “currying favour with the BJP”. Calls have gone out from several quarters for my sacking, arrest or both. I stand accused by some of these sites of peddling fake news.

Net net, by his own admitted actions, Aroor has amplified an unsubstantiated allegation, which gave it oxygen, which led to communal tension; his journalistic choices have been irresponsible throughout. As for the allegation that this “story” has to do with the Karnataka elections, consider what is happening on the ground:

#1. Karandlaje in short order propagated a fake story of jihadi rape. #2. Even two weeks after the original incident, Union Minister Anant Kumar Hegde was openly threatening violence in the state. Read that again, slowly: A Union Minister, sworn to uphold the rule of law, threatening violence and bloodshed. #3. Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh continues to beat the drum of “justice” at a rally in Karnataka. Again — this is the central minister for Home — the man in charge of law and order in the country. #4. Tensions flare in Belagavi and every time some semblance of peace is restored, there is a fresh outbreak.

Do you need to be told that the next major state election is in Karnataka? Here, a clip from a story cited earlier (Again, emphasis mine):

Even after the state government handed over the investigation into Mesta’s death to the Central Bureau of Investigation on December 13, the BJP refuses to scale down its protests. For the coming week, it has announced a “jail bharo andolan”, calling upon people across Karnataka to court arrest to protest the Congress government’s policy of favouring Muslims. Chief minister Siddaramaiah has accused BJP of using Mesta’s death to create trouble for political gains.

The communal tensions come at a time when political parties are preparing the ground for Karnataka assembly elections to be held in the first half of 2018. In 2012, BJP had won in just one of the six constituencies in Uttara Kannada district and one of the eight constituencies in neighbouring Dakshina Kannada district. The 14 seats in coastal Karnataka will prove crucial in deciding the winner of next year’s election.

Connect the dots: Karnataka is Congress-ruled. Elections are due. The BJP, consistent with its win-at-all-costs methodology, has in rapid succession used two fake stories to stoke communal tension, and already begun to propagate its time-tested “favoring Muslims” allegation — the party’s go-to trope in every single election, in every single state. And all this is happening in the one region where the BJP is most anxious to gain a foothold.

Here is the part that should scare you: The dates for the Karnataka elections have not even been announced yet. And already, a former state-level minister, and two Union ministers, have done their damndest to light fires. Who knows what else is in store as the campaign actually gets under way?

All of which is why the “journalism” of the likes of Aroor — thoughtless, if I am being charitable; unprincipled, if I am being honest — is so dangerous; it is the oxygen that feeds the flames of bigotry, of hatred.

Elsewhere:

#1. BJP MP Kirron Kher joins the long line of politicians using fake photos to stoke faux patriotism

#2. A “fringe” outfit (I’ll have more to say on these fringes in a later post) in Karnataka is outraged that Sunny Leone, gasp!, is scheduled to perform at a New Year’s event in Bangalore. What will she wear?! Will she wear anything at all?!! Shock, horror!! And so the police — whose duty is to maintain law and order, not cater to every damn bunch of lunatics threatening the peace, decides to cancel the event. That is who we are today — a nation captive to every ragtag outfit that can say it with stones.

#3. Proving yet again that politics is the last refuge of the certifiably insane, a BJP MLA says that Virat Kohli and Anushka Sharma chosing to get married in Italy is an unpatriotic act. The bit that should worry you?: “The crowd that had gathered there was seen applauding as the MLA was speaking.”

#4. The Hindu Jagran Manch — yet another of our ‘fringe’ groups, of which more here — threatened violence if Christian-run schools in Uttar Pradesh celebrated Christmas. Which is par for the course with the HJM. What should make you sit up and take notice is this: A Union minister saying, in support of the HJM threat, that schools are not religious places and people should celebrate only in their homes.

#5. A CAG report, which names Ramdev’s Patanjali in a list of polluters, provides a grim view of the Clean Ganga project.

Now, as per the CAG report, the river in the Prime Minister’s constituency of Varanasi happens to be along one of the most polluted stretches. In six cities of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal oxygen levels in the water have plummetted from the level it were in 2012-2013. Total coliform bacteria levels in all cities of UP, WB and Bihar was very high. The water quality in these cities was not even fit for bathing.

#6. In Rajasthan, a man kills a Muslim, videotapes the incident, and uses the videotape to raise money for an anti-Muslim campaign. Over 700 people from across the country deposit over three lakh in his account. A Hindu group supporting the killer clashes with police and raises a saffron flag over the area courthouse premises. And it turns out that the wrong man was killed.

Unpack this slowly:

During grilling, Shambhul told police that labourer Mohammed Afrazul, a resident of West Bengal’s Malda, was not his target.

He wanted to kill one Ajju Sheikh because he was in contact with a girl whom Shambhu regarded as his sister. But we suspect Shambhu had an affair with her,” said Rajendra Singh Rao, police circle officer of Rajsamand.

This hero on whose behalf people are raising funds and attacking cops brutally killed a man while meaning to kill another man he believed had eyes on ac”sister” he was having an affair with. Now what? Can the 700 idiots who “contributed to the cause” ask for their money back?

Tailpiece: Prime Minister Narendra Modi, according to TimesNow which, these days, is on a batshit hashtag trip, is engaged in Mission Sab Ka Saath. Per which Modi, on December 19, met fisherfolk in Kerala who were affected by Cyclone Ockhi and told them this:

“This is not the time for a lecture and I assure you that we will do everything to help you and that’s why I myself have comeWe are all with you and will do everything. With Christmas round the corner, we wish all the missing return back,” he said in his brief remarks on the occasion.

But even that is nothing compared to what he said next:

“The cyclone hit Lakshadweep, Kerala and Tamil Nadu and many of the fishermen are yet to return. We have taken quick action by first sending Defence Minister (Nirmala Sitharaman). The whole country is with you in your grief,” he said to claps from the grief-stricken families.

“…claps from the grief-stricken families”? Where is that facepalm emoji when I need one?

The cyclone hit the Kerala coast on November 30.

Originally published by Prem Panicker here.

5

This post is the second in a series that discusses democracy and the idea of a shared country from the ground up. The previous post asked why, when the basis of civilization was a need to co-exist with some guaranteed security, the masses chose to believe in paranoia. I attempt to present some views here.

The masses at large are preoccupied with what they come in direct contact with. Few have the inclination or interest to examine what doesn't *appear* to be broken. When thoughts delegitimizing the rights of fellow citizens proliferate, there is little realization that this is something that goes fundamentally against the secure social structure they take for granted as a country.

Nationalism prefers to disenfranchise minorities and appropriate the country in the name of the majority. Secularism believes that regardless of identity, citizens must be equal under law, AND vulnerable minorities MUST be protected - because it is human nature for the majority to choose bullying as an easy way out instead of sharing.

This is not something that is limited to India. The internet and the speed of disseminating information as well as doing it in ways that allow deniability have resulted in a surge of nationalism worldwide that those believing in equality struggle to counter. There are several reasons for this. In a world where established thought respected equality, and growing globalization subtly created an attitude of opportunism being the right of those with access, a subtle erosion of morals toward "might being right" went unnoticed. Furthermore, I don't think enough "thinkers" anticipated that the unthinking masses would simply choose faulty thinking that they could superficially understand over the words of established thinkers and philosophers over the ages. The last straw was the methods.

Whichever country sees a rise of nationalism sees a barrage of incorrect and inflammatory information finding purchase among the masses. This information is not an accident, it is engineered to make people who believe it think that the minority is the threat to the majority. It further provides explanations and conspiracy theories to excuse the crimes perpetrated against the minority and invents or magnifies any wrongs by the minority. And thus, defense indeed becomes the first act in this war. Absurd as it seems, the majority is actually led to believe that the minority is out to make them extinct.

When such thought spreads, you find countries unable to prosecute crimes against the minority because of fear of backlash by a majority that believes them to be justified, resulting in a collapse of law and order. This impunity, of course is exactly what nationalist leaders want, because their entire agenda is impossible to implement in lawful ways in a democratic country.

Fake news is being recognized as a threat to rule of law worldwide now.

But this is the result. How is it that xenophobia spreads to such a degree? Why is it that fake news spreads more rapidly than real news? Well, apart from the obvious reason that fact checking takes time and effort (there are now attempts to make fact checking more easy in an effort to combat fake news) and apart from the obvious reason that fake news is crafted to sound believable - at least to those already primed with a steady barrage of it - there is the fact, that those spreading fake news are operating out of a sense of carrying out a mission for a cause.

I once observed that the approximate time difference between a Modi supporter coming up with an explanation that other supporters like for something indefensible (at this time you will have multiple excuses being made) and it being used popularly as the explanation by the vast majority of supporters is 2 hours for a simple argument, 4-5 hours for something more complex and about half a day if the propaganda involves images.

Compare this with secular intellectuals almost never having the same rebuttal for something, a far fewer number of them, each using their own words, and it is easy to see how one kind of answer has the capacity to rapidly dominate a debate, while the other fails.

This is largely because while nationalists are engaging in a propaganda war for their identity, secular intellectuals are engaging in what they imagine is a debate, where they are presenting their own view.

So the observable difference in spread of nationalist and secular views is also a difference that can be directly measured as one between active promotion of views and expressing an opinion.

To dig in still deeper. If you take a single message that needs to be put out among people to support or defend something, if released among nationalists, it will be forwarded without question and accepted as the correct explanation of events. There is a lot of schadenfreude among secularists when someone like @bhak_sala (a pro-Modi Twitter handle) gets trolled by other bhakts (unquestioning Modi supporters) when he outright dislikes the appointment of Yogi Adityanath as the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh. What they miss in their "LOL"-fest is how rare such an incident is. While a party like Congress accepts criticism for the most part (not that they have much choice these days) or supporters in a party like AAP form entire sub-movements in revolt against the actions of their leader, or while socialists and communists literally have so many differences as to almost hold independent views only, a voice of dissent in the BJP is so rare that it is a one off episode and literally involving one person in this instance. It stands out because in spite of BJP being able to generate the largest organized propaganda - and some of it absurdly illogical or inhuman - dissent is almost next to non-existent. This is a hive mind at work. These people aren't there to think for themselves, they are there to win a country for their team.

If a similar message were released among secular intellectuals, unless it is exceptionally well crafted so as to have agreement among those with the various flavors of secular thought, chances are that it will be read by several, further promoted by a few, and commented on with critiques or refinements by most. The slightest disagreement with the arugment or dislike for the author would mean the message goes no further with that person. In effect, there is no "team" spreading secular thought. And it is difficult for such a team to exist as well, because it is difficult for independent thinkers to come up with identical thoughts. And this is still the spread of a message among those already in agreement with secular thought. The impact and credibility of this is further diluted among the masses if concepts people aren't familiar with it are used. Relatively speaking, "jobs are few, get rid of reservations and we'll have more" is easy to understand when compared with "2-3% caste-class elites already have over 50% jobs and much more in private sectors" - particularly if the 2-3% elites have never had any reason to question why the whole country should run as per their preferences.

So, it is absurd when bewildered secular intellectuals today ask how the country could deteriorate to this degree. Well, your thoughts were not accessible to the masses, the thoughts that were not just accessible, but actively promoted among the masses were simple to understand and made prejudice sound the need of the hour, and you never bothered to organize to elevate the thinking of the masses beyond presenting your refined thoughts.

It is no coincidence that when thoughts of hate proliferate, there is absolutely no concerted campaign going on explaining the basics of democracy. What is a democracy, what are our rights? What is a government? What does the accountability of a government to people mean? and so on.

It isn't difficult to put these things in simple words anyone can understand. In fact, you could probably plagiarize a textbook non-voter kids study (quickly, before it changes) and voters have left far behind to recirculate the basics. There are ways to explain life affirming concepts through various mediums in ways anyone could understand. But it is a matter of doing it. It is not enough to call nationalism, fascism a primitive thought that cannot result in a stable country - the need of the hour is to explain why that is so. In simple words people understand. No government is going to pay for this education. Personal liberty means that we cannot have forced conscription of liberals to educate the masses either. So who will do it? And is it important enough for you to take it up voluntarily?

8

If you’ve spent enough time on Twitter, you would’ve found out it’s dominated by the right-wing. BJP IT Cell members were originally on Twitter to promote Modi as a PM candidate. A BJP IT Cell in Nagpur apparently consists of around 6200 members. You didn’t have to read this report to know that the RW machinery on Twitter is organized. You’d have thought their work would be done after making Modi the PM but they’ve still stuck around to defend the BJP Govt’s every move.
The RW of trolls of Twitter are notorious for making death, rape threats, indulging in character assassination and using gendered abuses to silence and intimidate those who hold views different to theirs. The RW machinery consists of normal citizens, bigwigs of RW with huge following, BJP IT Cell members and even right leaning editors, news anchors, journalists and some authors.
The right-wing came under fire recently for spinning the murder of Dr. Pankaj Narang as a case of communal violence. Some popular RW accounts were quick to give it a communal colour.
narangnarangg  narangonarangranganaranhg
The communal angle to a murder case was laid to rest by ADCP Monica Bhardwaj.
This is not the first time the online RW has been caught with their pants down. There have been many other instances where right-wing trolls have indulged in propaganda and the unfortunate part is, they’re assisted by some eminent figures like journalists and editors.
Some examples.
1. Meerut “love jihad” case
 
The case of “gang rape and conversion” ended up in a nikaah between the couple. Her enraged father had filed a false complaint of gang rape and the Sangh Parivar took up the case to encourage the bogey of ‘Love Jihad’. Some prominent people on Twitter had already passed judgement on it and stirred the demonisation of a minority community.
2. Tuktuki Mondal case
 
Tuktuki Mandal was abducted and raped by Muslims, claimed the RW, and they claimed there was a larger sinister plot behind it. Tuktuki Mandal returned home and denied charges of kidnapping and said she didn’t want to return to her parents (as she had a tiff with them).
3. Durga Puja “ban”
After rumour-mongering about how under Mamata, Durgo pujan was banned, it came to light that restriction on Durgo pujan has been present for a long time and even slaughtering goats during Eid isn’t allowed in the same village
4. One sided narrative of RSS workers getting killed
Since quite some time the RW has been tweeting gory pics of RSS workers killed by CPM as a form of whataboutery to any claims of majoritarian violence like the recent killing in Jharkhand.
 kerala
There is a history of political murders in Kerala and not only CPM, but other parties also indulge in it. These killings are politically motivated and do not have a religious angle to it, as some in the RW suggest. Here’s a comprehensive list of murders by RSS members in Kerala (credit: @goonerblues) which goes against the narrative by right-wingers that only RSS workers are the victims in Kerala.
5. Claiming mass-killings in Malda
malda
Muslim fundamentalists wreaked havoc in Malda after ‘insult’ to Prophet but the claims of right wing trolls that scores of Hindus died is false. There was vandalism, police vans were set on fire, a nineteen year-old boy and a thirteen-year old girl were injured. It is debatable that the violence indeed had a communal hue.
6. Manufacturing fake videos of Kanhaiyya and spreading false news of Hafeez Saeed’s endorsement of JNU.
 fakevide fakevid
JNUHafiz hafizmajumder
One of the fake video originated from Shilpi Tewari’s account and was also shared by journalist, Aditya Kaul. Propaganda of Hafeez Saeed endorsing JNU student was spread by Rajnath Singh and the Delhi Police, also by those same right-leaning journalists. Later it turned out the Hafeez Saeed tweet was fake.
7. Dismissing Dadri lynching and the recent Jharkhand lynching of two youths as cases of ‘personal enmity’.
dadrirupa
jharkhand
dadrinarang1
It is a widely accepted fact, as reported by most media outlets, that Dadri killings and hanging of two youths in Jharkhand were communal incidents. Yet the RW machinery wants to spread the canard that they were instances of just ‘enmity’. They aim to dismiss blatant communalism in some cases and imply religious overtones in other cases when there isn’t any to suit their agenda.
In Conclusion
The right-wing leaning journalists, editors and authors shouldn’t act like third-rate Twitter trolls and indulge in spreading lies and communal bile. They should ponder over how their words demonizing minorities contribute to communal tension on the ground. When I confronted such a journalist, she played it down and said condescendingly “I didn’t know I was so powerful”. Well, the likes of her may not be powerful indeed but they do contribute in spreading propaganda on Twitter which then expresses itself in a more crude form on Whatsapp and Facebook. Examples below.
untitledCeewfzXWsAA6TSv
There are many people in India who unfortunately get their dose of “news” and information through platforms like Facebook and Whatsapp. They don’t bother reading papers and finding out the complete stories. There have been many violent incidents due to rumour-mongering on Whatsapp and other SM platforms. Such incidents include: Dadri killing, Trilokpuri riots and Muzzafarnagar riots. Hope these eminent people exercise caution before communalising or otherwise in the long term they might end up having blood on their hands.
[Original post: https://medium.com/@alkalien/poisonous-propaganda-of-the-online-rw-machinery-e934f5614da9#.tofk7zomt ]