Kashmir’s fake news and fake journalists

BY MOAZUM MOHAMMAD| IN Digital Media | 24/01/2016
The rumour about anti-polio drops killing Kashmiri children is the latest example of fake journalists misusing social media to spread lies.
MOAZUM MOHAMMAD reports from Srinagar

(left) Screenshots of WhatsApp message being forwarded in Kashmir about a temple under a  Metro station, and  (right) a fake Facebook account. 

 

After the panic and scare triggered by a rumour that children were dying after being given the polio vaccine, Jammu & Kashmir Police appealed to the public on Thursday (21 Jan) not to be misled by rumour mongers on social media and dial 100 instead for information.

The fear had made parents whose children had received the vaccine rush them to hospital the previous Sunday, leading to complete disorder in Kashmir. Despite repeated government announcements that it was a false rumour, nothing stopped anxious parents from braving the freezing cold to reach doctors so that their children could be examined.

The incident began after someone (two persons were later held for spreading the rumour) posted the fake news on Facebook and Whatsapp groups. “It has been observed that some rumour mongers shared incorrect and false information on social media sites…..which created panic in the public,” said a statement issued by the police.

The entire episode highlighted how social media is being misused. Hundreds of Facebook pages and WhatsApp groups are run by persons pretending to be journalists in Kashmir. They spread news by copy pasting it from other sources without checking the authenticity of the facts.

A senior Jammu & Kashmir police official who works in a cyber cell said the police have been taking down Facebook pages for spreading misleading and false information since 2010. As many as 200 pages were blocked, for example, when a fake video which could have stoked communal violence went viral, the official said.

“We have observed that above 50 per cent of WhatsApp and Facebook pages copy paste information. Everyone has become a journalist and the big problem is that such pages and groups only spread false information,” the official told The Hoot.

Another example was the rumour that the late Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed had died when in fact he was alive at AIIMS hospital in New Delhi. This fake news went viral. When the origin of the rumour was located, it was found to be a fake Facebook page in the name of the Greater Kashmir newspaper. The newspaper later registered an FIR against the fake Facebook page for spreading lies in its name.

TV channel Times Now has also registered a complaint with Facebook after someone opened a page in its name. “My office approached Facebook instead of the police and got that page blocked. That fake page had drawn about 150,000 followers,” said Mir Fareed, Times Now’s Kashmir bureau chief.

Last year, when the police rounded up some persons for spreading rumours on social media, most turned out to be students or people who had nothing to do with journalism.

The rumours are becoming more varied. Yesterday, a WhatsApp group run by a youth dealing in wooden furniture spread a message that a mosque had been excavated below a metro station in Delhi. He wrote, “media iss baat ko chupa rahe hain….isliyee is baat ko door tak falayeee (the media is hiding it, let’s spread it too far),” wrote the group admin. The Delhi Metro authorities did discover a mosque in 2012 while building a station but the purpose of this message is anyone’s guess.

Similarly, another person who runs a travel agency said he would spend lot of time surfing the Internet and in 2010, when everyone was looking for news during the peak of the summer agitation in Kashmir, he launched a Facebook page, drawing a large number of followers. “You have to copy paste as nothing else is possible so quickly,” said the admin of the page.

Kashmir Inspector General of Police S.J.M. Gillani has said that the police are looking into the regulation of such pages, especially after the pulse polio vaccine incident.

At Kashmir University, media research scholar Danish Nabi underlines the problems of what he calls “WhatsApp journalism”. “Of late, every second person in Kashmir has started behaving like a journalist. And the easy availability of the Internet, especially social media, has provided them with a platform to express their idea without the checks and balances that are part of journalists’ professional conduct,” he said.

Yusuf Jameel, who has reported for the BBC from Kashmir and is considered to be among the most reliable journalists in the region, called these activities not just unethical but criminal. “Such persons, on hearsay, update anything on social media and in such a manner that it seems authentic. It creates confusion. If action is not taken against such people, it will be a big problem. Such people can be discouraged only if the authorities take stern action,” said Jameel.

Kashmir University’s Senior Assistant Professor at the Media Education Research Centre, Syeda Afshana, agreed that tough action was necessary.

 “Against the backdrop of the recent polio vaccine rumour, the responsibility lies with the government as well as professional journalists. The regulation and gatekeeping of social media is required and also a vibrant media watchdog which can take cognizance of such issues,’ said Afshana, who also writes on media issues in her weekly column, Freeze Frame.   

She believes that if professional journalists, civil society and journalism schools act together – as well as the government - the menace can be curbed. “The polio rumour is just an alarm bell. If we leave it unattended, it will snowball into something worse. We have to take cognizance and stop it right now,” she said.

 

(Moazum Mohammad reports for the Kashmir Reader. He has previously worked for the Pioneer and the Millennium Post.) 

 

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