If you come across a Bengali news website named ‘India Rag’, know that you are in for numerous suspicious news items usually with just the first name of the author and no email ID or contact details. But ‘India Rag’ is not an isolated case. With the campaign for Bengal elections 2021 gathering steam, as many as 30 such dubious news portals have mushroomed in the state. Names like Baarta Today, Campaign Calling Media, Bharat News, Bangodesh, Kolkata Prime Time, SOM Extra, Bengal Times, 4u Bangla and many more such Bengali news platforms with unknown ownership and credibility have cropped up in the run-up to the elections.
As per sources, some of these platforms are run with the help of political funds to run fake news against their opposition.
On the content front, most of the platforms carry some trending political news picked up from other news portals to maintain a façade followed by a barrage of propaganda content and even fake news.
With the elections barely four to five months away, the platforms are being aggressively used to build perceptions.
“The power of media has always been there to help build perception but today (digital) media is not only acting as a media but is defining the message. With a mobile in hand and almost free data, today everyone is a media content creator and also a distributor. Anyone with access to the internet can contribute to the war on misinformation and unfortunately, the politicians are one of the biggest culprits turning the term fake news into a weapon. With a vigilant election commission, now if you can’t capture the Booth. The Mobile phone is now the tool to capture the Mind. Politicians know, nothing can be left to chance, as a misstep can get blown out of proportion, and one may end up with (non)issue firefighting,” said political commentator Anup Sharma.
“Politicians across the world have been successfully using Fake news to describe information that they don’t like. West Bengal, once known for its rich culture and intellectual conversations has unfortunately become the hotbed of political violence and testimony to bitter acrimony among leaders of various political parties. And West Bengal whose politics thrives on secularism, sadly is also now at the forefront of this Great Fake News Story for political activities as well, with the fake news spreaders perhaps working overtime to generate content,” he added.
Today, political messaging over the digital world has the potential to reach more than half the population directly and act as a force-multiplier in political messaging. One-third of the West Bengal’s 90-million population is now connected with smartphones. And sources in Facebook suggest that among the Indian states, Bengal has one of the highest numbers of users, thus giving an impetus to more fake content than ever before. No doubt, the election narratives are being set on digital media. If we look at spends on Facebook, in the last 30 days a mock page called Khotikarok Modi (harmful Modi) is one of the top spenders in political ads, having shelled out over Rs 20 lakh in just 30 days on 120 ads. Also, as per Facebook Ad Library, West Bengal has been the highest spending state in the last month having spent Rs 59, 49,273 on political ads.
Apart from videos, old and unrelated images are shared on the platform with falsified claims on a daily basis. Fact-checkers who closely observed the news and social media posts during the 2019 elections found how redundant and irrelevant videos and images from Bangladesh feature in the priority list of Bengal false content generators. This is perhaps easy because of the similarity of the language and the ethnicity of the erstwhile East and West Bengal. During the 2019 national election, a video of a rural Bangladeshi practice of exorcism went viral with a false claim of religious conversion in Bengal. There are many more such videos that are being circulated on these spurious platforms.
Such content however has not restricted themselves to news sites; there are umpteen pages on platforms like YouTube and other new social media platforms too being used as an active digital tool in propaganda.
But do these platforms really convince voters?
“Even if people don’t believe in their credibility but when the same narratives are reeled over and over, the ones who fail to differentiate between factually correct and fake news or do not have means to educate themselves. They start believing in it and we have seen that these sources of information have in the past have led to massive destruction including public lynching,” said Tripti Jain, lawyer and researcher at the Internet Democracy Project.
When E4M reached out to one such site running by the name of Kolkata Prime Time, its owner Dibyendu Ghosal enquiring said, “We are waiting for funding but right now the team funds itself. We do not run any propaganda or fake news. However, if anyone accuses us of publishing fake news we ask them for correction and run it immediately.”
Turns out, in the last few months, the Kolkata police got 270 cases and arrested more than 180 accused people across Bengal for spreading fake news on social media. “What was surprising, that the arrested included people from across the spectrum- Government employees, political activists, traders, teachers, students and even homemakers, showing how deep the menace of fake news factory in West Bengal,” said Sharma in one of his blogposts on fake news from Bengal.