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Fact And Fiction

Lies Exposed

Raman Swamy

How much of what politicians say is true? Are their bombastic claims just harmless exaggerations or deliberate distortions and downright lies? In the political war of words, how can the ordinary citizen distinguish between truth and falsehood, myth and reality?

A handful of websites have sprung up in India of late to help sift fact from fiction. It is a mammoth task, especially in the age of information overload. It is hard to keep track when so many top-rung leaders are making so many dubious claims at so many election rallies every single day.

It is even more difficult to wade through the deluge of claims made by Ministers and Opposition stalwarts on their Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp accounts—often with photographs and videos that seem to give credence to their sensational allegations or boasts.

Here is an example of a factually incorrect video posted on Twitter by Kiran Bedi, the Lieutenant Governor of Puducherry. The video showed an aged woman playing Garba. Kiran Bedi claimed it was the Prime Minister's 97-ycjar old mother Heeraben Modi celebrating Diwali.

False on every count. The woman in the video was not the Prime Minister's mother. The song playing in the background glorifies the Navaratri festival and not Diwali. The video itself is an old one, which has been on the Internet for years. Needless to say, Kiran Bedi was forced to backtrack on the plea that it was a case of "mistaken identity".

Much higher up the political ladder, the Narendra Modi versus Rahul Gandhi verbal war too reached a deafening crescendo, especially in the wake of the high-stakes Gujarat assembly elections.

Social media and the electronic news channels are awash with a tsunami of claims and counter-claims, personal taunts and clever repartees between the two most important netas of the land. It is almost impossible even to keep track of what is being said, let alone cross-check and verify every assertion, every allegation and every statistical contention.

In the midst of all the angry words being exchanged, a new furore has erupted about the comparative popularity of the two in terms of the social media's hitherto trusted measuring scale—the number of followers.

The issue in dispute is the authenticity of the re-tweets and 'Likes'. The question was—how many of them are manipulated, concocted and fake. Some of the intrepid fact-checking websites have been quick to swing into action and to employ complex online tracking tools, like Twitter Analytics, to get to the root and the truth of the matter.

The finding of the truth-seeking geeks was embarrassing to both of them.

One fact-check site called Boomlive looked closely at the handles of Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi to examine their Twitter engagement. It revealed an unusual rise of Twitter followers and re-tweets for @OfficeofRG in the month of September and October. But at least 100 accounts were found to be "bots" or non-human. The analysis of @narendramodi told the same story—he had several new followers in the month of October but at least 100 accounts were computer-generated "bots" with a previous history of zero tweets and zero followers.

Deeper probes have virtually confined that both NaMo and RaGa are equally guilty. Twitter Audit, an online tool, found that only 37% of Narendra Modi's followers are genuine.

According to another internet tool, StatusPeople.Com run by a group of engineers in London, Modi's account had 46 percent fake and 41 percent inactive users four years ago. The latest Status People report says Modi's account has 97 percent "inactive users" as on October 28, 2017.

This is a staggering and eye-opening revelation, if it is anywhere near accurate.

Modi joined Twitter on January 10, 2009 and it is easier to audit his fan base over the last eight years. Rahul Gandhi joined Twitter only in April 2015 but became seriously active only from the middle of 2017—hence it will take awhile to calculate what percentage of his followers are genuine.

But the message is loud and clear—the leadership of both the Congress party and BJP will now have to be less brazen in making false claims and fake allegations. All fake news will now come under the scanner of IT whizz-kids and professional researchers.

The truth is that many fact-checking agencies and websites have set up shop in India. Unlike the blatantly biased mainstream media—consisting of major TV news channels and big newspapers—the new breed of truth-seekers are still largely independent and non-partisan.

Their focus is on sifting fact from fiction, nailing lies and exposing exaggerations. There is a long way to go before they become a major force in ensuring Swatchh politics and Swatchh journalism.

But the verdict so far is—in the political and media, there is a great deal of hype and dishonesty. And all are equally guilty.

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Frontier
Vol. 50, No.30, Jan 28 - Feb 03, 2017