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For sale: Poison-smeared news

For sale: Poison-smeared news

In times of information revolution and Artificial Intelligence (AI), the Cambridge Analytica (CA) scandal shows the various approaches of our political parties towards the elections.

Such apps function by collecting the personal information of the voter using special cyber applications and continuously publishing fake news on his Facebook wall to create a political situation favourable to them. It has already been proved that this highly dangerous election experiment has taken place in different parts of the world and that people including Donald Trump have made their way to power benefitting from the app. The revelations of a former employee at CA that BJP and the Congress had planned to use this ‘app’ that is capable of destroying even the democratic system in India, have set off a new political uproar. Meanwhile, another report that could be similar to this incident went unnoticed. It was the undercover sting operation carried out by a news portal Cobrapost. A journalist Pushp Sharma in his investigation found that a few of the mainstream media houses in the country have been endorsing Hindutva and thereby the Sangh Parivar government, all for money. Given that a country where Fascist trends have been evident many a time is moving towards the general elections, ‘Operation 136’ by Cobrapost gives rise to much apprehension.

Pushp Sharma approached the owners of newspapers and television channels in north India with an offer of paid news. He masqueraded as Acharya Atal, a representative of Bhagwad Gita Prachar Samiti, for his newsroom meetings. The offer was crores of money for promoting Hindutwa agenda for creating a political atmosphere favourable to the BJP in the looming 2019 elections. The video footages and audio files that have surfaced proves that employees of about forty media houses including Dainik Jagran, Amar Ujala and India TV have already fell into the trap. Acharya’s demand was to promote Hindutwa agenda in three phases. In the initial phase, ‘soft Hindutwa’ must be promoted through customized religious programs by mixing some religious hatred. In the second phase, the campaign must carry out character assassination of the Opposition leaders; alongside, the ruling party should be praised. There were special demands to target Rahul Gandhi, Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav who all had to be treated with more damage. In the last phase, an undisguised campaign should be carried out. Not only have many media houses nodded in agreement for this media campaign but have also ensured to run the campaign through the social media. People including Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s most favoured Rajat Sharma, have been trapped in ‘Operation 136’. Pushp Sharma says all the media persons he spoke to had responded favourably towards his demands. Several of them were even willing to accept black money as their reward for the job assigned. Though the media houses that have been trapped in the revelations by Cobrapost have denied the allegations, their denial can only be rejected in the light of the evidences that have surfaced. The crime committed by the media houses is not only paid news but also consciously and deliberately broadcasting news that accelerates communal polarization in the country.

Cambridge Analytica and Operation 136 are just pointers of where the media, called the fourth estate of democracy, stand now. Even otherwise, in Modi's India there is great insecurity in the media sector, as in any other sphere of life. When the country is going through very crucial crisis, media which should make positive interventions not only fail to do that, but are often noticed to serve as the governments' PR agency. Rarely do our media venture to respond against the government or to criticize it. Even if an exceptional one tries to swim against the tide, the Centre will gear itself to bring media gag bill to muzzle them. The media gag bill introduced in BJP-ruled Rajasthan was one such. It has become another unwritten law that those opting for the path of journalistic activism will be punished with death. The examples before us do not end with Gauri Lankesh. Those who got killed the other day like Sandeep Sharma and Vijay Singh were ones who took their pen against the ruling establishment. It is when free media functioning is facing such grave crisis that new issues that making things complicated, come up. We know that what ignited the riots in Muzaffarnagar and Kasganj was mere fake news. That being so, no doubt that the damage caused by paid news smeared with poison will be all the more serious.

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