The current flood of fake news flowing through social media all over the world reminds me of the Emergency days (1975-1977). I had the unpleasant duty of enforcing coercive measures in Bombay city.

One of the embarrassing duties cast upon my Special Branch, immediately after the Emergency promulgation, was to temporarily work as a censor of the news publications from Bombay till an official machinery was appointed.

However, we could not do much to curb or even detect the origin of many of the hundreds of typed or handwritten pamphlets conveying news of anti-Emergency activities from the “underground”. They used cheap “stencil” rotary machines to make hundreds of copies which were clandestinely distributed late at night.

The Government considered these as “fake news” but the public treated it otherwise, as they were tired of the drab, officially approved handouts on the “gains” of Emergency. As I had mentioned in my book “Keeping India Safe” (2017), this pamphleteering was one of the reasons for the deep public resentment leading to the humiliating defeat of the Congress party in 1977.

The advent of the internet and social media later has permitted a big industry of “fake news” all over the world. Fake News could be defined as “the creation and sharing of false or manipulated information that is intended to deceive and mislead audiences, either to cause harm or for political, personal or financial gain”.

This affects us in many ways: first the credibility of established government or systems is undermined and money has to be spent to counteract the effect of such false news. Second, our electronic channels of communications are clogged leading to wastage of time and money. Third, serious law and order situations are sometimes generated by the spread of such fake news.

On May 15, 2016 a columnist in a national daily gave a list of concocted stories circulating in the internet about Jawaharlal Nehru: “Even as India’s first PM is scrubbed out from textbooks, his reputation is being savaged on the internet”. One case she mentioned was that Jawaharlal Nehru’s grandfather was originally Ghiasuddin Ghazi, a kotwal of the Mughals, who changed his name to Gangadhar Nehru .

Around the same time a good friend of mine, a former IAS officer, narrated to me the same story which he thought was true. The underlying message was that Nehru had Muslim ancestry and hence was anti-national.

On February 28, 2016 a person published “An alternative history of the Jawaharlal Nehru family I received on WhatsApp” saying Muhammad Ali Jinnah was Motilal Nehru’s son through an “an Iranian woman” .

Fake news had created serious law and order situations all over in 20th/21st centuries: “The Washington Post” had said on November 22, 1979 that the reason why unruly mobs had burnt down the American embassy in Islamabad was a rumour conveyed through a radio broadcast from unknown origin that the United States’ army had invaded the Grand mosque in Mecca. In fact only the Saudi troops were involved during the Grand mosque seizure by Saudi extremists from November 20 to December 4, 1979 .

On August 11, 2012 a serious riot occurred in Mumbai’s Azad Maidan when protestors clashed with the police being provoked by the morphed photos of Muslims allegedly killed by the Bodos which were circulated. As a result 2 persons were killed and 54 were injured.

The rioters damaged police vans and molested women constables. It was later found that some mischief makers had circulated photos of Rakhine(Myanmar) riot victims, mislabelling the photos as Bodo victims .

A German news service had said that one of the reasons for the worst 2013 Muzaffarnagar communal riots in Uttar Pradesh was the circulation of a fake video produced in the Gulf showing a Muslim mob killing a Hindu youth .

The Davos based World Economic Forum had said in their report for 2018 that fake news circulation is one of one of the world’s top global risks. An economic study by the Israel-based cybersecurity firm CHEQ and the University of Baltimore, has revealed that fake news is costing the global economy $78 billion each year including $ 39 billion in stock market value .

This also includes Pandemic time health mis- information ($9 billion)and financial misinformation($17 billion). Another big loss to the national economies is by way of circulation of fake news during elections.

This study found that the spending on online fake news during India’s 7 phase 2019 general elections had amounted to US dollar 140 million. Similarly during the 2018 Brazil’s elections, it was US$ 34 million .

Is “Fake News” a 20th/21st Century invention? No. A French publication “The Connexion” (February 21, 2017) said that the first use of fake news for political ends was in 1307 when the “Templars” were put to death by King Philip IV of France.

The Templars were poor soldiers of Jesus Christ raised by two French knights, Hugues de Payens and Godfrey de Saint-Omer in 1119-1120 to protect pilgrims going to Jerusalem which was captured by the First Crusade. The name “Templars” originated from the temple of Solomon, later the Al-Aqsa mosque .

In due course the Templars became very rich and powerful, threatening the reign of King Philip IV and Pope Clement V, who was the “Papal inquisitor” in Paris. As a result, secret instructions were sent to the King’s agents all over France to prepare fake reports of blasphemy against them.

Nearly 1000 were arrested, tortured and put to death. Their lives have been captured by Dan Jones’ best selling book “The Templars”.

Is there any way by which we could control fake news? Unfortunately hopes are dismal. A Pew Research Center paper of October 19, 2017, prepared after interviewing 1116 technologists, scholars, practitioners and strategic thinkers had said that the “information environment” would not improve even during the next 10 years .

There are many reasons: First, “the fake news ecosystem preys on some of our deepest human instincts” to our craving for the answers we find in “reinforcing echo chambers”. This is because the audiences “ are looking for information that fits their belief systems”.

In other words those who dislike or are envious of Jawaharlal Nehru would believe and circulate any libellous news against the Nehru family.

Second, human brains “are not wired to contend with the pace of technological change”. In other words, rising speed, reach and efficiencies of the internet and emerging online applications will worsen the inherent human limitations of grasping the information volume, to which technology-based solutions would be of limited use. The result is a dismal “information landscape” in which “fake information crowds out reliable information”.

The survey concluded that anonymous and online echo chambers or silos would continue to divide people into separate camps, “at times even inciting them to express anger and hatred at a volume not seen in previous communications forms”. We have seen that trend in all countries, the visual channels seeking TRPs or “big attention economy” decimating high-quality journalism.

Would the much hyped artificial intelligence’s (AI) “Chat Gpt” solve the problem? No. On the contrary it will only make it worse as it would result in “ a tsunami of misinformation” which would need global governance to control it as ‘The Economist’ (April 18, 2023) had concluded.Israeli scholar Yuval Noah Hariri’s warnings since 2019 on the deadly effect of AI to humanity is also highlighted now.

Vappala Balachandran is a former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat. Views expressed are the writer’s own.