#Interviews

Tannisha Avarrsekar Talks About The Fake News Epidemic

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Tannisha Avarrsekar is the Founder of Digital Democracy Platform Lokatantra where she talks with the members of Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. The platform is aimed at using ‘digital democracy’ to increase the ability of people to know more about candidates who are contesting elections. In this interview with SheThePeople, Tannisha Avarrsekar discusses fake news, digital democracy and representation.

Q. Tell us more about why you founded Lokatantra.

Since I moved to London for my undergrad when I was 18, the 2019 Lok Sabha election was the first time I had the opportunity to vote. After I came back from college, my voter registration as well as gathering information about probable candidates and electoral processes took lots of time and effort. Some friends that I asked for help, had given up on the idea of voting all together, because they didn’t have the time to make so much of an effort.

That’s when I began realising that for citizens like me, who wanted to be more politically aware or socially conscious, there was the want of a platform that made it quick or easy to educate themselves and engage with those whom they were considering electing. And that’s where the idea to start Lokatantra came from.

Q. Do you think that the pandemic has played a role in increasing fake news?

Absolutely. A study on misinformation in India by the University of Michigan, that was released in mid-April this year, showed an exponential rise in the number of debunked, fake stories since January onwards. 

Such fake news is spread not just by the common man on social media platforms, but now even more disappointingly by legitimate news organisations. If an empty mind is a devil’s workshop, it seems an empty calendar is the devious newsman’s. The obvious reasons are the fact that as people have more time on their hand and fewer sources of entertainment due to the monotony of life in lockdown, they are able and willing to consume more content. Under such circumstances, anyone looking to hook their growing audience, takes advantage of the opportunity with sensational stories, regardless of their relation to reality.

Tannisha Avarrsekar, women in politics

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Something else that is at play, is that the fear psychosis created by the pandemic, makes people vulnerable to manipulation, creating favourable conditions for those looking to spread disinformation to peddle an agenda, such as creating a diversion from real issues.

Q. What do you think can be done to curb it (fake news)?

Call it out. Check the facts and their source before believing or forwarding them. Most fake news can easily be debunked by a quick Google search.

John Kerry said “A democracy can only work when you understand what the truth is.” Fake news undermines the fabric of our democracy, by eroding public confidence in the institutions that we rely on for the facts that determine our judgment and decisions. So do not normalise fake news, be outraged by it. Lying to the public has to be unreservedly unacceptable.

Trust experts like doctors who have studied their individual fields, but don’t place blind faith in even them. Be discerning about the content that you consume. Denounce those that don’t. We have to create and nurture a culture, where there is a sanction on perfidy. The deterrent should be not just legal fallout, but the dread of public condemnation. 

Q. Since people cannot leave their homes in lockdown, physical campaigning has been reduced by parties. Do you think digital democracy is the future? 

We’ve already seen in the last two elections, that digital infrastructure is playing a significant role in campaigning. But I personally don’t think physical campaigning will go out of style anytime soon. My experience so far has been that, voters value the personal touch of getting to see and meet their leaders. 

Q. How do you think democracy can be made more effective digitally?

The first step is increasing access to internet in the country. Despite the large base of internet users, the internet penetration rate in India stands at only 50% as of this year. 

Because of the pandemic, there’s also an urgent need to make Parliament virtual or hybrid to facilitate remote participation by members. Many countries like Britain have already begun taking steps towards this.

Aside from these issues, there is also still the dearth of a viable solution for online voting for overseas Indians that can meet all conditions of cyber security. 

Q. Media generally covers only the most reputed politicians. There is little known about others. How can the media create equal representation for politicians?

The truth is that more attention needs to be paid to smaller independent candidates that stand for elections. But it is understandable that news media cannot cover all of them due to the sheer volume of candidates and constituencies in our country.

Here, the responsibility has to be shouldered by independent media agencies and organisations who need to inform voters about all the options available to them, and as much information as possible about each of those options. That’s where Lokatantra.in steps in. This due consideration to newer political faces can encourage fresh ideas into our country’s governance, which has been largely polarised and dominated by big political parties, with old loyalists and deep pockets. We cannot be choosing our leaders based on just their party symbol and spending power; their character, ideology and objectives should concern us much more.

Q. Is equal representation in the media ethical? Or should only the most relevant politicians, based on trends, be highlighted in the media?

It is definitely ethical. When the media highlights politicians based on trends, it unwittingly encourages them to give provocative bytes to attract attention. This not just lowers the standard of public discourse, but also more importantly gives rise to social ailments like extremist rhetoric.

For citizens like me, who wanted to be more politically aware or socially conscious, there was the want of a platform that made it quick or easy to educate themselves – Tannisha Avarrsekar