Saturday, February 13, 2021

On truth, post-truth and checks on truth

 Ankhon dekhi, a Hindi phrase referring to an event that one has personally witnessed, was adopted as the title for a 2013 film where Bauji, the middle-aged protagonist, realises that there is a great gulf between what he was told about his daughter’s suitor and what he sees with his own eyes. Henceforth, Bauji refuses to believe anything he has not personally witnessed. He loses his job at a travel agency for he cannot reassure customers that a flight does, in fact, go to its intended destination. He refuses to believe that lions roar until he has heard one roaring.

This tragi-comic film is predicated on the practical limits of an individual quest for truth. Society delegates this task to reliable agents: journalists, investigators, and increasingly, recording devices. In the 21st century, however, we find that not only are our human narrators unreliable, we cannot even trust the evidence of devices. Images, video and audio clips are new tools for discombobulation. Take an old video, ascribe to it a new location, and voila! Falsehood emerges, harder and more resilient than truth. 

India is one of the world’s more misinformation prone nations. A 2017 study of Indian news consumers showed that nearly 83% of respondents were concerned about fake news, and 72% of them found it hard to distinguish between truth and disinformation. In 2019, Microsoft’s Digital Civility Index showed that the likelihood of Indians encountering misinformation was 7 points higher than the average in the surveyed 22 nations. That was in a year the Economic Times termed “the year of fake news.” But 2020, with the Covid-19 pandemic, pushed the disinformation stakes higher. There was a spurt in fake news that had already been debunked.

According to a Lokniti-CSDS survey in 2017, over half of the respondents said they trusted newspapers and television news channels, compared with only 29% who said they trusted information received through WhatsApp or Facebook. This was despite the fact that cheaper data and higher Internet penetration have translated into at least 400 million users of WhatsApp in India, which has a population of nearly 1.4 billion. Another report, focused on urban India, found that print news leads in the Media Credibility Index, while the CVOTER Media Consumption survey of 2020 also suggests that newspapers are perceived as more credible than TV or digital media.

The relatively higher degree of public trust in traditional news media represents a double bind. On the one hand, people are more aware that the information they confront on social media is not necessarily credible. On the other hand, they are more vulnerable to disinformation if it arrives by way of TV channels and newspapers.

And it does arrive...

Read the full essay here:

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