Co-owner and editor of the popular right-wing news website Postcard News, Mahesh Hegde, has been arrested for posting a fake news story that could incite communal violence. Fake news is a growing problem worldwide and can be used to incite sectarian sentiments.
The term “Fake news” has become increasingly popular, and is often linked to debates surrounding democratic process and free speech in the information age. US President Donald Trump has taken credit for coining the term “fake news”. He has repeatedly criticised media for what he deemed biased and “fake news”, attacking respected media outlets such as New York Times and CNN.
A more accurate use of the term, however, refers to news stories that deliberately spread misinformation or false facts. In recent years, the growth of social media has enabled the spread of misinformation. In 2017, news emerged that Facebook was a key influencer in the outcome of the 2016 US Presidential election. During the run-up to this election, the BBC notes the prevalence of fake headlines such as “Hillary Clinton sold weapons to ISIS” and “Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump for President”.
Fake news is a growing problem in India as well. In 2017, it was reported that a viral WhatsApp message had resulted in the death of seven individuals in eastern India. The message warned people to be wary of strangers in the region, as they might belong to a “child lifting gang”. Two separate mobs in villages in the state of Jharkhand beat victims to death, mistaking them for members of this gang.
Pratik Sinha, founder of AltNews, an anti-misinformation website, told media last year that India is increasingly vulnerable to such incidents due to the “proliferation of smartphones and cheap data packages.” He stated that fake news is often backed by extreme sentiments. He noted that a number of videos his company dealt with had an “anti-Muslim” slant. “It [fake news] has added to the tension within communities, and, over the years, several people have lost lives because of false information and rumours," Sinha said.
Postcard News is an online, right-wing Indian news site. Postcard has been repeatedly accused of spreading misinformation. Al Jazeera states the site made “a successful business model out of distribution of false, albeit provocative, news stories with catchy clickbait headlines.”
On 29th March, co-founder and editor of Postcard News, Mahesh Vikram Hegde, was arrested for publishing a fake news story earlier this month. "We have arrested Hegde for posting a fake news on his news portal Postcard alleging that a Jain monk was attacked by Muslims,” Bangalore joint commissioner of police N. Satish Kumar said in a statement.
In a story published on 18th March, Hegde used a picture of an injured Jain monk to claim that the monk had been attacked by Muslim youth. Postcard News posted the picture on Facebook, along with the caption “No one is safe in Siddaramaiah’s Karnataka”. Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah is head of the Congress party in the state, which has previously accused Postcard News of favouring the BJP. Hegde is followed by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Twitter, and has over 70,000 followers.
The police have confirmed that the monk in question was injured in an accident. The picture was taken shortly after. "When the monk was getting treatment after the accident, one of his disciples took a picture. He [Hegde] used the picture to say that the monk was attacked by Muslims,” Kumar told the BBC. Kumar added that the cybercrime division has “registered a case against the portal and its owner Hegde for false news.”
The story was taken down days after it was published, however, the state of Karnataka filed a formal complaint. Hegde has been held under Section 66 of the Information Technology Act, and Section 153A of the Indian Penal Code (“Promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion… by signs or by visible representations”.)
Our assessment is that this arrest is a step towards addressing the proliferation of fake news. Misinformation campaigns are increasingly being used for political agendas and have the potential to incite communal or sectoral violence. We believe that regulatory mechanisms must be put in place in order to check the spread of fake news in India.