6 January 2017
A mid-term referendum
Coming as it does barely a few months beyond the halfway mark of the BJP-led government at the Centre, the importance of the round of Assembly elections notified this week cannot be overstated. With votes scheduled to be cast in phases starting February 4 in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Manipur, Goa and Uttarakhand, counting will take place on March 11. Since the process of federalisation and regionalisation of the polity deepened in the 1990s, Assembly election results have been determined more often by regional issues than by national political variables. But with Prime Minister Narendra Modi having emerged as the BJP’s principal vote-bagger, and with subjects such as demonetisation on the election agenda, this round will be influenced by national issues. A sidelight of the election schedule is the Union budget, advanced to February 1 from the traditional February 28 presentation. The Election Commission is still to rule on the Opposition demand that the Budget be unveiled after the polling.
Early indications from U.P. point to a tripartite contest among the Samajwadi Party, the BJP and the Bahujan Samaj Party. Both Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav and BSP chief Mayawati are bracing themselves to check the Modi wave of the 2014 parliamentary elections. By leading an internal revolt against the old guard associated with the politics of identity and muscle power in the SP, Akhilesh Yadav has sought to project himself as being committed to development above all, thereby seeking to counter the BJP’s rise since 2014 on the same appeal. Ms. Mayawati had lost a considerable chunk of her Dalit support base in 2014, but has since re-framed her outreach by attempting to forge a Dalit-Muslim alliance. Her strategy will face a test, as the earlier phases of the State elections are in western U.P. that saw stark communal polarisation in 2014 in the wake of the Muzaffarnagar violence. In Punjab, the Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP combine will be in a keen fight in another tripartite contest, against the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party. The latter had thrown down the gauntlet in 2014 by clinching four Lok Sabha seats out of the 13. In Uttarakhand, the Congress will be tested by the BJP after its State government was restored to power by the courts in 2016 following a spell of President’s Rule. In Manipur, its government has staked its chances on the decision to create new districts that precipitated a renewed ethnic crisis. Goa, in the recent past, has had a volatile Assembly, and the AAP’s focus on the State has ignited the fray. Together, the results will have strong reverberations at the national level.
Being factual in the post-truth era
Pakistan’s Defence Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif, for all practical purposes, recently threatened Israel with a retaliatory nuclear attack, in response to a fake news report that the Israelis had said they would use nuclear weapons against Pakistan if it sent ground troops to Syria. Earlier, a man fired an assault rifle in a pizzeria in Washington, D.C. after reading online that it was involved in a child trafficking ring linked to Hillary Clinton. In India, a fake story said there was a GPS tracking chip embedded in the new Rs.2,000 note. Fake news — the deliberate creation of factually incorrect content to mislead people for some gain — is becoming an increasingly serious problem. And tackling it is imperative in a perpetually wired and click-happy world. Everyone with an Internet connection and a social media presence is now a content generator. Access to the web at all times on mobile platforms has raised expectations for real-time news and constant entertainment, and competition among websites and social media platforms has resulted in the proliferation of ‘clickbait’. With platforms such as Facebook, that have hundreds of millions of users, news, fake or otherwise, spreads rapidly.
While the news may be fake, its impact is real and potentially far-reaching. A recent study from the Pew Research Center found that approximately two-thirds of Americans felt ‘fake news’ had caused a “great deal of confusion” over current affairs. The abundance of fake stories during the U.S. presidential elections has raised concerns about their impact on election results. This has set alarm bells ringing in Europe where several countries are about to go to the polls. Germany is considering imposing a €500,000 fine on Facebook if it shares fake news, and an Italian regulator has asked European countries to set up an agency to combat fake news. The danger is that instruments to identify fake news could become muzzles on opinion and speech. Therefore, while such regulation is needed, it is vital that it comes from within. Social media and news organisations can regulate themselves at different levels, most importantly through rigorous internal editorial and advertising standards. Industry-wide measures, such as adherence to a charter of standards on fake news and imposition of fines on organisations falling short of these, could be done. Meanwhile, the broad contours of what constitutes fake news need to be defined. News and social media companies have a moral responsibility to ensure that they do not, directly or otherwise, deliberately misrepresent the facts to their audiences and pass them off for news. If it is a post-truth world we inhabit, this becomes especially important.