How Fiction Can Beat Fake News
A The specter haunts fiction writing – the specter of fake news. I fear that my abilities as a novelist will be questioned by those who fabricate lies on social networks. There is fiction and then there is fiction— forgeries that lead to lynchings and riots. Both rely on storytelling, but that’s like saying the earth is used in both gardens and graves. The way the language is used in each case is entirely different, if not opposite.
WhatsApp, the instant messaging service owned by Facebook, transmits sixty-five billion messages a day, all over the world. Users in India send a good portion of these messages, many of which consist of fake news. Last year, in a particularly harrowing case, rumors that kidnappers were abducting children and harvesting their organs led to the death by lynching of at least twenty-nine people in different parts of the country. The stories were spurred by a video that went viral on WhatsApp, which claimed to show one such abduction, despite warnings from journalists and police that the video was fake.
In fact, in what must be called a tragic irony, the footage in the video came from an advertisement for a child abduction prevention organization in Karachi, Pakistan. After the murders were reported, I saw Asrar Alam, a creative director behind the ad, interviewed by the BBC. “I have no words,” he said. “I want to see the face of this man who edited this video for evil purposes.”
It’s a writer’s desire to give shape and voice to a character, no matter how evil. In the age of the Internet, the person you interact with online is often anonymous. the person threatening you, perhaps in graphic or intimate terms, is hiding behind a made-up name. Perhaps Alam was saying that he wanted to give evil a face because the idea of a faceless enemy was unbearable to him. Maybe he was saying that the universe depicted in the fake video had no feeling, no interiority. In any case, I saw that he called for the presence of something – someone – human. This is the domain of literature.
Good meaningful fiction does not confirm pre-existing beliefs; its sole purpose is to disturb and challenge such beliefs.
The fake news has proven irresistible to readers. Studies have shown that people spread fake news on Twitter six times faster than real news. Unlike novels, which create complex narratives that take time to consume and understand, fake news delivers consumers ready-made conclusions with little or no context. This is sensational information that does not provide any nuance and does not invite questioning. These stories are appealing to the countless people currently invested in conspiracy theories – people drawn to a behind-the-scenes view of reality. Fact-checking often reveals deception, but the moment something turns out to be wrong, who cares? The point was the thrill of being seduced by the lie.
Unlike literary fiction, fake news offers nothing new. Instead, it conforms to existing popular prejudices. It’s formulaic, often sentimental, and has a sickening quality of repetitiveness. The child abduction video that circulated last summer wasn’t even the first of its kind; Similar videos were first shared across India on WhatsApp in 2017. They followed a familiar pattern, claiming to warn against roving gangs of kidnappers and showing the dismembered bodies of children. The videos were so widespread that police posted ads urging people not to believe them. And yet, with frightening regularity, they pushed people into terrible and predictable violence.
Muslims in particular have been frequent targets of fake news. In India, this has most often taken the form of beef-related transgressions: a Muslim is accused of eating beef, or killing a cow. He is beaten mercilessly. He is forced to chant Hindu slogans. The spectators take part in brutalizing him; others shoot videos on their phones. The police are often complicit. The main political leaders remain silent on these murders, giving tacit, even overt support to the killers. This is how lies and rumors, spread by WhatsApp, encourage fanatics to act as armed vigilantes.
In Alwar, Rajasthan, in July 2018, a 28-year-old Muslim milkman taking his cows to his village was beaten by a mob suspected he was a cattle smuggler heading for a slaughterhouse. He lay injured in the field where it happened until the police arrived. It was later reported in Indian media that the police made two stops before taking him to hospital: one, to drop off the cows at a shelter, and a second for tea. The man was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital. As a writer in search of individual pathos, what I found most moving about The Milkman’s story was a statement from the man’s father; he reportedly said that his son loved his cows so much that he would go hungry if there was not enough food for the animals.
Genuine surprise, of the kind found in a story by Anton Chekhov or Alice Munro, for example, shakes us from our complacent understanding of the world. It makes us skeptical about what we thought we knew about ourselves and, even more so, about others. But fake news does the opposite. It exists to create die-hard followers of an incomplete and intolerant view of the world.
In October 2018 – and here again I emphasize the sickening familiarity of false information campaigns – there was a train accident in Amritsar during a religious holiday which resulted in the death of around 60 passengers. A viral disinformation campaign falsely identified the train driver as a Muslim man named Imtiaz Ali – a complete fabrication; the real driver was a certain Arvind Kumar, a Hindu name. This massive tragedy has been compounded by the added tragedy of fake news.
I often wonder: who imagines these fictions, and where are these dark factories of the mind? Good meaningful fiction does not confirm pre-existing beliefs; its sole purpose is to disturb and challenge such beliefs. Against simplicity, complexity. Against judgment, understanding. Against fake news, the radical surprise of real life.
Amitava Kumar is the author, most recently, of Immigrant, Montana: A Novel (2018). He teaches at Vassar College.
TOP IMAGE: Illustration by Jackie Ferrentino