Real vs Fake: The Perils of Social Media


By Sandeep Sahu

Readers of leading Odia daily ‘Sambad’ rubbed their eyes in disbelief as they opened their favourite newspaper on Thursday morning. On the top right hand corner of the newspaper was a story on the sighting of some persons allegedly moving around suspiciously with guns in hand near the Uran naval bases in Mumbai on Wednesday afternoon had the sketch of one of them that bore an uncanny resemblance with Rajdeep Sardesai, editorial head of India Today news channel!

Twitter was abuzz with comments – some backing Sardesai and others having a go at him – soon after he himself tweeted about this monumental faux pas by the No 1 Odia daily. “Just saw a Odhiya (sic) newspaper Sambad put up my sketch as a terror suspect based on RW Twitter gang mischief. If not war, these guys will kill!” tweeted Sardesai. The top notch anchor followed it up with another tweet taking on the daily for its blunder. “@sambad_odisha Is this journalism? U should be ashamed to put up photo shopped pics as news,” he said. Sambad was quick to apologise, saying “@sardesairajdeep Sir, we sincerely apologise for the grave error on our part.” The newspaper followed it up by replacing Sradesai’s sketch with the actual sketch released by the police on its epaper.

But by then, the damage had been done. Twitteratti had a field day dissecting the ‘grave error’ by Sambad. As is often the case these days, the mainstream media (MSM) picked up this juicy story from social media with, the, and others giving it a run on their leading digital platforms.

A bit of digging up by this author found that Sambad had unwittingly fallen prey to the mischief done by someone who used a photo shopped image of the eminent journalist using a Twitter handle purportedly belonging to leading Hindi news channel Aaj Tak, ironically the sister concern of the channel that Sardesai heads!

The episode brought out in embarrassing details the perils of depending too much on social media for information. Only two days before, a leading national news portal had apparently picked up a tweet by a retired Army general (which was soon deleted) claiming that two units of para commandoes of Indian Army had crossed the LoC with Pakistan and gunned down 20 terrorists, besides destroying many terrorist camps, in retaliation for the attack on the Uri Army base early last Sunday leaving 18 jawans dead and over 30 injured. The website stood by its story, dismissing claims by rivals that it was a ‘plant’ by the NDA govt as a case of ‘sour grapes’. But in the absence of corroborative evidence, it is eminently possible that the site could have seriously erred.

With multiple armies with their own specific agendas at work on the social media (Twitter, in particular) round the clock, it is hard to distinguish fact from fiction these days – even for seasoned players of the game. After all, if a premier daily like ‘Sambad’ – with all the resources at its command – could fall for it, what chance does a lay man have of making the distinction between the real and the fake?

Photo shopping has come in handy in the propaganda wars being fought on the social media. [Why, even the venerable PIB tried it when it showed a photo shopped picture of Prime Minister Narendra Modi making an aerial survey of some flood affected areas last year – only to beat a hasty retreat after its bluff was called.

There is a silver lining in this bleak scenario though. With millions of people at work 24X7, lies and falsehoods have a very short shelf life on social media. But as Sardesai tweeted in respect of the story on Indian Army crossing the LoC , the ultimate fear is “.. in this age of hype and little due diligence, a war will be started by fake reporting.”