On January 1, 2019, Jayarajan, a retired postmaster from Kerala’s Valanchery town allegedly committed suicide by hanging himself at his residence. On the following day, two women from the menstrual age entered the Sabarimala temple, becoming the first ones to do so since the Supreme Court in October last year ordered the end of a decades-old ban on women of menstrual age entering the shrine. The Right-wing supporters from the state spared no time in linking the two separate, unrelated incidents, and have reportedly started circulating hate and fake news on internet, which was immediately shared across social media platforms by the BJP IT cell and its supporters.
“Another Ayyappa devotee commits suicide. Jayarajan of Valancheri committed suicide after the desecration of the #Sabarimala temple by Maoist women activists. He is the fourth devotee to die brokenhearted in 2 months. #SabarimalaTemple is such an emotive issue here”, reads a tweet from the handle @PartyVillage017. Within hours, this tweet was widely circulated, and some Right-wing websites even carried news articles around this narrative.
Boom, a fact-checker website has busted this fake news. Police officials and Jayarajan’s family members affirmed that Jayarajan’s death has nothing to do with the women entering the shrine, as Jayaraman committed suicide a day before the historic entry by the women into the temple. However, the tweet still exists on the social media platform, which has attracted some 1300 retweets and 1000 likes so far.
For the last few months, the BJP in Kerala is trying to make inroads in the state with its polarisation around the Sabarimala controversy. While, this is not the first fake news on Sabarimala, it has been reported that the controversy around the shrine entry has been the central focus of misinformation for Right-wing supporters for some time now.
A 2018 BBC study tilted ‘Duty, Identity, Credibility: Fake News and the Ordinary Citizen in India’ found that the BJP’s social media networks have outpaced other parties in the spread of fake news last year. “…the anti-BJP amplifiers are very loosely interconnected, but the pro-BJP amplifiers are very closely interconnected,” the report found. This means that the pro-BJP accounts have more overlapping connections with one another, thus the widespread fake news.
Perhaps, the BJP/RSS trolls don’t leave any opportunity to create fake news whenever there is an incident of death with a religious angle in it. For example, on January 2, when a priest named Baba Prem Das was found hanging in Ram Janki temple in Unchahar area in Rae Bareli, Uttar Pradesh, conservative Right-wing social media handles propagated that Das was murdered by “Jihadists” and Muslims. Some BJP supporters shared the photo of the priest hanging, and called the incident “ISIS style terrorism”.
The Boom fact-checked the posts related to this incident, and found that there was no “communal angle” in the priest’s death and that he committed suicide, days after he was accused in a rape case.
Another common aspect of the BJP’s fake news gang is spreading false news against the other party leaders: especially from the Congress and the Left. Last week, a four-year-old video of Union Minister Maneka Gandhi reiterating a fake claim about Sonia Gandhi being ‘the sixth richest woman in the world’, has resurfaced on social media. Facebook pages such as ‘the India Eye’, ‘Zee News Fans Club’ and so on shared the video reaching thousands of netizens. Fact-checking alternative media platforms fractured the propaganda by revealing the facts. It has been revealed that the claim first appeared in 2012 in Business Insider (without any sources supporting the claim) which was in contrast with the information available with the Election Commission of India.
One video of Delhi Chief Minister and Aam Aadmi Party head Arvind Kejriwal has been shared widely on multiple social media platforms. The one-minute video has a slurred speech of Kejriwal with an accompanying claim that he is drunk. The news which surfaced on Facebook pages such as ‘Arnab Goswami’, ‘We Support Narendra Modi’ etc., was targeted at Kejriwal. Alt News found that the video was first posted by a user, Rajan Madaan, on Facebook which was subsequently shared by the BJP IT cell members. The fact is that the live video post by Kejriwal on 29 January, 2017 has been edited to slow it down deliberately so as to give the impression that Kejriwal is in an inebriated condition.
These incidents are just a tip of the iceberg when it comes to the massive fake news in circulation. It has now become evident that the right-wing social media trolls have intensified their spread of fake news, as if the BJP has opened the floodgates of fake news, ahead of 2019 elections.
The common subjects in the right-wing supporters’ fake news are false military developments, religious matters, Ram mandir, false government achievements, incidents of communal violence, defamation of political leaders, Pakistan and so on.
It should be noted that the PM Narendra Modi himself follows at least 15 fake news sources on Twitter, which only hail Modi and constantly spread fake news.