Ranjona Banerji: When a TOI journalist spread fake news about Dr Amartya Sen

03 May,2019

By Ranjona Banerji

 

That economist and academic Dr Amartya Sen is a great source of annoyance for the Indian rightwing is no secret. His Nobel Prize, his opposition to Narendra Modi and the BJP, his views on poverty alleviation, these and more are triggers for immense rightwing anger. But it is one thing for internet trolls and the BJP’s IT cell to attack Dr Sen. Or even for the “Sunday Guardian” started by BJP member MJ Akbar (and MeToo accused, in his journalist avatar), to claim that Dr Sen got his Nobel prize only because his wife is from the Rothschild family. (Doubly convenient because either by wilful or congenital ignorance, rightwing trolls usually confuse Akbar’s “Sunday Guardian” with The Guardian, UK. The two have no connection.)

But when a senior journalist with The Times of India retweets the same series of misleading and patently false tweets about Dr Sen’s time at Nalanda University then one has to wonder just how the devious and despicable roots of fake news have spread.

 

Bharti Jain sent out a series of tweets this week, repeating the same lies about Dr Sen that have been doing the rounds since the Narendra Modi government came to power in 2014. She issued an apology on May 1, only after being called out by several journalists. Including N Ram of The Hindu. (Please look at accompanying screenshots.)

Perhaps Ms Jain was a victim of the fake news brigade. But what does it say for us as journalists if we are unable to distinguish between fake and real news and that, in spite of the sweeping allegations against someone like Dr Sen, we do not bother to check? Or even that we are unaware of this long-standing and vicious campaign which has been doing the rounds for at least five years? How ironical that Times of India has started a fact check service but is unable to stop the spread of fake news within.

Here are links to two fact-checking websites, altnews.in and Boomlive, which set out the whole sorry spectacle of Jain’s tweets about Dr Sen, all of which were lies and in fact very damaging. At the time, several other journalists questioned Jain on her sources, and her answer was “government sources”.

Amartya Sen and Nalanda University: Debunking a web of untruths

TOI Editor Tweets Misleading WhatsApp Message Targeting Amartya Sen, Cites ‘Govt Sources’

If other people can check, why not a senior journalist who holds an important post in a large newspaper? If one wants to give the journalist the benefit of the doubt here, it is one thing to retweet one story or accusation by mistake, but to run a series of defamatory and damaging tweets seems either deliberately malicious or grossly ignorant.

When the fake news menace has become as widespread as it is now, several questions arise. We all make mistakes. But when you target someone with allegations of financial skulduggery, favouritism and worse, surely you at least check that you are sharing the correct information to the best of your knowledge?

There is also a lesson here for all journalists, that “government sources”, if that is indeed where Jain got her information from, are absolutely not to be trusted.

Funnily enough, the tweets that Jain put out followed the exact pattern that all information derived from Whatsapp forwards share: a breathless excitements, sweeping allegations, some attempts to involve the Nehru-Gandhi family and/or the Congress Party, a fake seriousness and an air of all-knowing superiority. If we are unaware of the clear fake news markers here, it would be wiser to doublecheck before putting such information out into the public domain.

**

The redoubtable media organisation Poynter.org found itself in a bit of trouble over fake news. In the growing universe of “news” and news sites which are known to spread fake or questionable or uncorroborated news, a Poynter list of 515 included three from India: Firstpost and Indiatimes for “unreliable” news and Postcard for fake and biased news.

This list would have been invaluable, but for the fact that Firstpost objected strenuously and Poynter has withdrawn its list for now, explanation from the editor below.

https://www.poynter.org/letter-from-the-editor/2019/letter-from-the-editor/

But as we have seen with Jain’s tweets on Dr Sen based on Whatsapp information, the reach of fake news and its toxic carriers has to be made more public as urgently as possible.

 

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist and commentator. She is also Consulting Editor, MxMIndia. The views here are personal.

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