Take this purely imaginary scenario.
A poor man cries helplessly on video saying that his son has been murdered by people from XYZ community. And that local police are shutting him up. The video creates a storm online.
Local police denies the man’s claim. A couple of days later, a “fact checker” calls up the father. Now the father says nothing happened, that his son died a natural death. And that he had made his allegations the other day because he was getting too many phone calls.
You know, as is quite common. Everyone knows that if somebody gets too many phone calls in a day, they get irritated and say that their son has been murdered by people from XYZ community.
Bang! So called “Fact checker” comes up with screaming headline that the allegations in the original video were fake. In an era where people scroll through headlines on their phone, your job is done.
Welcome to the new reality of the media landscape. All the goodness of old propaganda journalism, cleverly re-branded as “fact checking.”
Twenty years ago, journalism used to mean something in popular imagination. A lot of us were brought up on government run media alone. As such, we were brainwashed to believe that government media was politically neutral, sticking to facts. Yes, you may laugh now, but back then we didn’t know. That’s what brainwashing is.
At the time, journalism was respected. We expected journalists to be on the side of the ‘people,’ fighting against the powers that be. Popular culture of the time reflected this mindset. There were TV serials and movies around the theme of a heroic journalists exposing political corruption and social injustice. Serials like “Reporter” and “Waqt ki Raftar” which cast journalists as heroes. Some real life celebrity journalists became household names. Even household heroes.
I think the last of such TV shows / movies was made in the early 2000s. And by then, journalists were already being cast as double agents of sorts. The moral pedestal had been lost.
Today if someone tried to make a TV show about an honest reporter, they would get laughed at.
What happened? People got wise to the tricks of the journalist trade. Mind you, they had been up to these tricks for decades. But people caught on to them very late.
What sort of tricks? Let me give you another purely imaginary scenario. Suppose a media channel needs a powerful image/video of human misery to use against a government they are lobbying against. They will find someone to act out the misery like a movie. With many takes and retakes, until they get the perfect shot.
We know these tricks now. Or how media highlights (or does not highlight) certain aspects of a crime, its perpetrators or its victims depending on the narrative they want. By now, we all know what it means when a report says “Delhi man” has committed a heinous act. Or suppose there is some small street crime in Varanasi. We know exactly which channel would write a headline like “so and so crime happened in Temple Town.” The subtle narrative pushing no longer works. We have figured out all of them.
There were many reasons why big media lost its power to play tricks. One was social media. Suddenly everyone had a voice. And careful media watchers began to flag propaganda and share it with huge audiences. Second, journalists themselves entered social media. They no longer lived on the other side of a screen. Anyone who reads the Twitter timeline of a journalist cannot possibly believe in journalistic ethics. Then, there were the big watershed moments, such as the time a top journalist was caught lobbying with big business and fixing portfolios in government.
From heroes, journalists first came to be seen as ordinary humans. And then, lower.
In a twist of fate, journalists themselves were slow to catch on to what was happening to their image. But ultimately they did figure it out.
Then, they began a fightback. Once upon a time, ordinary people would go on social media to tear down journalists. Now journalists went online, looking to tear down ‘people.’
The new name of the game was ‘fact checking.’ People are fools, they argued. People share unverified information, they said. And someone needs to be out there being a hero, debunking all the lies out there.
Like any good propaganda, there was a seed of truth here. Lies do circulate in public discourse, especially on the web. There is value in being sure of facts, just like we also need somebody to do real reporting. Which is why we needed journalists, remember? And just as with journalists, the real dough for fact checkers not in facts, but in propaganda.
Now they had a new bag of tricks. I already explained one in the purely imaginary example at the beginning of this article. Let me show you another. Suppose there is a communal riot in a state ruled by a friendly government. How do you go about suppressing it?
In the old days, journalists would simply have refused to report it. If nobody knows about it, it never happened. Not an option in today’s world, where anyone can record video on their phone.
So what do you do? You ‘fact check’ your way out of it. You wait as the pictures of the violence circulate. You wait till you come across a single fake pic. Perhaps you take the initiative and plant it yourself and wait for some troll to pick it up. Then, you pounce upon it and write an article with the screaming headline: Fact check: Fake video from X shared as violence in <secular> state.
Your job is done. People reading the headline will now think the entire news of the communal riot was fake! Just like that, you made real news disappear.
Here’s another. There’s a heinous crime somewhere and you’re embarrassed because the accused are linked to your favorite political party. What do you do?
Here’s what. You call up everyone in that neighborhood and ask them about the crime. You wait till you find one person who has a slightly different version of events. And bang! You are now clear to do the headline: Fact check! XYZ never happened.
The old journalism type tricks are back, now re-branded as “fact checking.” The principle is simple : there’s a narrative you don’t like. Find something that runs counter to it, no matter how small and scream “Fact Check.”
The term “fact check” carries moral authority today, just like “journalist” used to carry twenty years ago. In other words, ‘fact checkers’ are trying to walk into the fake moral space that ‘journalists’ used to occupy. We the people have to beware of this new scourge. We have to become wise to their tricks. Just like a decade ago, when we became wise to the tricks of the journalist trade. And in the interest of democracy, this must happen quickly.