In April, journalist Rana Ayyub fell victim to fake news propaganda when a parody account of Republic TV attributed a fictional tweet to her. The fake tweet said Ayyub supported child rapists. Several other pages with large following also circulated the news. It was even dubbed in various languages, so the impact was greater. The post saw over 10,500 shares until Ayyub had to write on Facebook, justifying herself.

This is how perpetuators trigger gendered abuse against women. Another case goes back to February 2017 when college student, Gurmehar Kaur’s video on peace-keeping between India and Pakistan went viral. The distortion of her video, rumour-mongering and then morphing of her pictures caused her mental trauma and sparked threats for several days. Student activists like Kawalpreet Kaur of Delhi University and Shehla Rashid of JNU have also fallen victim to doctored posts.

Experts SheThePeople.TV spoke to have said women are the foremost targets of fake news because shaming them is a big piece of social media virility

Supreme Court Advocate Aishwarya Bhati told SheThePeople.TV, “When social media was only available to a few people, at that time fake news was not even a thing. But today with the easy access to smartphones and internet, misinformation is spreading at a much larger scale. The media even today has a strong regulatory regime, so if it tries to circulate fake news then it can come under scanner. There are strict laws to tackle that offence. But social media does not come with any regulation, so anybody can say anything. It also offers a sense of anonymity and lack of accountability.”

Key Takeaways

  • Opinionated women are easy targets of rumour mongers.
  • Today, when a woman tries to speak the truth or associate openly with feminism or any current issue—troll machines and rumour-mongers online come alive. Since news spreads like wildfire online, its impact also becomes huge.
  • A major purpose of misinformation against women is to malign them.

The News Minute founder, Dhanya Rajendran, said, “In India, women who are in the public space and are opinionated, always face a bigger threat than men who are opinionated in the public space. So even when it comes to circulating fake news, they are at the receiving end.”

Investigative journalist Rohini Singh said, “The other day someone asked me something about Barkha’s (Dutt) personal life which is completely untrue. And these are people from regular walks of life. For me, what I am doing today is exactly what I was doing during the UPA government. But today people perpetuate false information around how I am on the payroll of Samajwadi Party. And it is strange because the same people who say this are the ones who used my stories which were critical of the then government during their election campaigns. So I feel women tend to get it much more than men.”

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Why women are easy target of fake news

According to AltNews founder Pratik Sinha, “Women journalists are specially targeted like the constant rumour that Barkha Dutt has married thrice or the Gurmehar Kaur episode and the fact that one of her pictures were circulating online where a young woman was driving in an SUV with her friends, drinking and that went viral saying she was Kaur. In Indian society, people look down upon women who are in male company, drink etc. DJ Varnika Kundu had to go through a similar incident when some men chased her at midnight when she was returning home. When in the online space, people propagate fake information about women, it is also to digress from the main issue at hand.”

Spreading across the country

Cases of fake news against women come from across the country. Last year when Kashmiri photojournalist Masrat Zahra had gone out on a project clicking pictures during an unrest, people started circulating her pictures online and called her a ‘Mukhbir’ (whistleblower).

Talking about the impact on her after that incident, she said, “I feel insecure when I go out in the field. When people look at me, I feel that they are thinking that I am a Mukhbir. People have even stopped me on the roads inquiring if I am the girl from the internet who is a Mukhbir. It has scared my family too. Now if I do want to go out to report, my mother discourages me.”

How Rema Rajeshwari tackled the menace

Superintendent of police Rema Rajeshwari of Telangana’s Godulamba is one of the pioneers who discovered fake news crimes at an early stage. She deployed a team to tackle the issue. In six months, she has been able to free the district of fake news crimes. Today, other state police are reviewing her strategies to handle similar cases.

Rajeshwari spoke to us in detail about tackling the issue. How she used ways like drum-beating, increasing the police-citizen interaction, organizing awareness drives etc. to spread the message among the villagers, so they started bringing every rumour to the police first for fact-checking.

“We collected samples of these messages, videos and images from almost all the villages. I put up a team of four constables who are tech-savvy. They and analyzed these pictures and videos. The videos were quite realistic but two videos weren’t from India at all. We reached the conclusion that somebody had morphed those images and videos,” – Rema Rajeshwari

“We went door-to-door telling people not to believe in the rumours and if they still feared something or were suspicious of strangers entering their village, then they should inform us and not take law and order into their own hands. Because these forwards had made people move around in anxious groups and some of them formed themselves into village volunteer forces. They were wielding sticks and patrolling on their own. We couldn’t have encouraged that kind of a practice,” Rajeshwari explained.

Workshop to spot fake news

Even in Kerala that’s struggling with floods, Kannur district officials have started fake news classes in 150 government schools. The classes consist of a combination of videos, classroom lectures and skits to teach about fake news. It also shows how forwarding things mindlessly can cause mishaps. While Kerala has 95% literacy rate, it too fell for a fake forward when parents of about 2.5 lakh children in Kannur denied MMR vaccine to their children. This happened because of a fake message — which said the vaccine harmed children — going viral.

Awareness is key

While there are initiatives to curb fake news, Sinha is of the view that it cannot be fully eliminated. “Rumour-mongering is going on for ages but it has gained substantial velocity because of social media. So the challenge is more so of the platforms rather than the issue at hand. At least for a section of the population, we can try to educate on how to locate what is fake and what is real news. There are tools which can easily tell you where is an image lifted from or if the video is doctored etc. Awareness programmes, technology which will help people tell in a WhatsApp what is fake info would really help society.”

Rajendran said that we have reached a stage of such information boom that people have to install a fact-checker in their brains.

“If there is a news that comes on your WhatsApp or Facebook, or a screenshot of a tweet which is circulating in somebody’s name then the easiest thing is to go to a person’s timeline and check for yourself if that tweet is actually there. It takes barely two minutes out of your life than spreading something which is not true,” – Dhanya Rajendran

Freelance journalist Namita Bhandare believes that while crimes against women have recourse in the law, there is no such mechanism for fake news. “At least on paper you can file an FIR, whether anything will come out of that complaint, anybody will get convicted, is a different matter. But the problem with fake news is that there is no recourse.”

On the development that the IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad met the WhatsApp CEO to recommend him to come up with a technology to find the origin of fake news, Sinha said, “In case of WhatsApp, what the IT ministry wants is not possible because it is end-to-end encrypted which means that the two people who have a conversation on the platform will have a unique encryption key. So when message travels from one set of peers to another set of peers, WhatsApp cannot see it. However, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are open platforms.”

“This doesn’t mean that these social media platforms don’t have any responsibility. But it is unfortunate that the IT minister doesn’t even understand something so basic. He should make more of legit demands which actually work. There has to be political will to do these things.”

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