Where the 'truth' lies

The women protestors of Shaheen Bagh get Rs 500 per day. The rate per protestor is fixed. The Congress party is distributing money to the protestors. The dress code says those taking part in anti-CAA protests in Mumbai have to wear a hijab. JNUSU president Aishe Ghosh has been faking her head injury. (While on that, check out the replies to this tweet to see how deep, and wide, the rot spreads). Oh, and her supposedly broken hand? The sling changes from left to right depending on the position of the camera. Jihadis — read, Muslims — who almost burned down Mangalore city the other day have now placed a live bomb in Mangalore airport. “Sickulars” are silent about the Kali image vandalised in Kolkata. Former JNU students including Kanhaiyya Kumar celebrated the killing of 70 CRPF soldiers in 2010. A Muslim abused minor girls, for which he was stripped and thrashed. Indira Gandhi’s father in law was ‘Yunus Khan’.

All of this is from just one fake news-busting website, Alt News. Almost all of them from the last 48 hours. Several of them either originating from, or heavily amplified by, people with official links to the BJP and fellow organisations. There is even more from within that time frame — I stopped because I was tired.

“Repetition makes things seem more plausible,” says Lynn Hasher, a psychologist at the University of Toronto whose research team first noticed the effect in the 1970s. “And the effect is likely more powerful when people are tired or distracted by other information.”

The illusory truth effect, they call it, and it is the subject of considerable scientific research. And it is not a particularly new phenomenon, right? Repeat a lie often enough and it will be perceived to be true — that was one of the pillars of the Nazi propaganda machine.

I believed, though, that I had assiduously worked towards building a certain immunity. That a rational, cognitive human being, aware of the risk and therefore prone to cross-check everything, was inoculated from the dangers of propaganda. A BBC report on the phenomenon even seemed to bear me out.

What Fazio and colleagues actually found, is that the biggest influence on whether a statement was judged to be true was… whether it actually was true. The repetition effect couldn’t mask the truth. With or without repetition, people were still more likely to believe the actual facts as opposed to the lies.

This shows something fundamental about how we update our beliefs – repetition has a power to make things sound more true, even when we know differently, but it doesn’t over-ride that knowledge.

All of which is to say, if my ear is connected to my brain, then I’ll know a lie when I hear it.

Yesterday, a little something happened that made me go back and do a little more reading on the phenomenon. I stumbled on this pre-print (a scientific study that has not yet been validated by peer review) of a study led by Ghent University.

The study examines the three aspects of cognition that influence how people make judgements about something they come across: (1) Intelligence; (2) The human need to avoid ambiguity and to decide, one way or the other; and, (3) The individual’s cognitive approach, which takes into account that some of us think in rapid, intuitive fashion while others take a slower, more deeply analytical approach.

The paper I linked to above goes into the methodology, sample size, the nature of the experiments conducted, all of that (and if you have the time, I’d suggest you read it, because differentiating between the real and the fake has become the biggest challenge of this “age of information”).

Broadly, though, the findings can be summed up thus: The illusory truth effect is universal. It does not depend on the individual’s cognitive style — which is to say, we are all, all of us, likely to believe repeated information, regardless of how intelligent, how deliberative, we believe ourselves to be.

Thus:

I don’t know why I believed this, when I saw it, but I did. And I, a Keralite born and bred, was outraged. My state has been doing well, thus far, in its collective response to bigotry — we don’t need this, was my first thought.

Acting on the thought, I retweeted a mention of this with copy to the Kerala chief minister, asking that he look into it, and also asking Keralites on my TL to retweet and add to the public pressure. Because, see, this is just wrong, right?

I really should have known better. After all, Shobha Karandlaje’s propensity for gaslighting is no secret — in fact, on one occasion, a rumour she floated as fact, which got picked up and amplified by India Today’s Shiv Aroor, was so egregious I ended up writing a long post on this phenomenon – which, I just realised, is still relevant. Because exactly the same thing happened here.

Karandlaje put out something — which, incidentally, has got 8,400 likes and over 6000 retweets at the time of writing this, thus amplifying the “news” far and wide. With Karandlaje giving it legitimacy, Kerala-based BJP/RSS activists began retransmitting the “news” (which is interesting enough in itself — the local Hindutva outfits in Kerala are so tired of getting their backsides kicked that they now outsource bigotry to neighbouring states, wait for these rumours to gather steam, and then pick it up quoting the outside source). Mainstream media outlets picked up the story and carried it with insinuating headlines. You have to read to the end of the story linked here to realise that it is a he-said, she-said story, not based on fact but on rumour.

It was only later, prompted by the ‘wait a minute’ voice in my mind, that I made a few calls to people (including a cousin who is very active politically and plugged into the state network), who made a few calls to other people, and I finally got an inkling of where the truth lies:

In the Cherukunnu colony of Valanchery in Kerala’s Malappuram district, there is a perennial water crisis thanks to non-functional water pipelines that have not been attended to for over six months. People share water sourced however they can.

One Muslim family in a predominantly Dalit locality has a government-supplied borewell for agricultural use. The family has been diverting some of that water for domestic use, and also sharing this diverted water with seven or eight neighbouring families.

On January 11, the BJP organised a pro-CAA rally in the area, and a handful of young men from the colony, all Dalits, participated. A week later, word went around that the Muslim family, upset over the participation in the pro-CAA rally, had stopped supplying water to those households.

The rumour spread thanks to the assiduous efforts of the state BJP/RSS machinery; it got kicked upstairs to Karandlaje who then weaponised it, and from her it moved into mainstream media.

Meanwhile, the BJP through the medium of Seva Bharati (an RSS social service wing) began supplying water to the affected families, with a lot of fanfare, furthering the victimhood narrative.

What, as nearly as I have been able to make out from my conversations, was this: the state electricity department sent a notice to the Muslim family asking that they desist from using for domestic consumption water from a borewell meant only for agricultural purposes.

On receipt of the notice, the family reached out to their neighbours, to inform them that they would from here on be able to provide only two buckets of water per day.

Like all good lies, the one Karandlaje and others spread rested on tiny grains of truth. (1) A Muslim family had been helping neighbouring Dalit families during a time of water crisis. (2) Some young men from those families had taken part in an anti-CAA rally. (3) A couple of Islamic organisations — which, like every other political outfit, is prone to fish in troubled waters — had talked to the Muslim family about their neighbours’ participation in a pro-CAA rally. (4) The water supply had been curtailed.

Put together in a particular way, though, the story changes; it becomes one of a particular community using any and all means in its power — including denying something as basic as drinking water, OMG! — to those who support the CAA.

There is a coda to this story: The Kerala police have filed an FIR against Karandlaje under IPC Section 153 (A) which relates to promoting enmity between various groups. Karandlaje, backed by BJP leaders including IT cell chief Amit Malviya, are using this to play victim. Meanwhile:

Speaking to Indianexpress.com, he (Kuttipuram sub-inspector Aravindan) said, “We looked into it. What she (Sobha Karandlaje) has alleged is not true. The people in Cherukunnu colony would get water from a borewell as part of a drinking water project of the panchayat. However, the motor was burnt, so water couldn’t be supplied through it for the past one year. Another borewell was installed in the house of a Muslim family, from which the locals had been taking water. That borewell was originally supplied by the Krishi Bhavan through the KSEB, and was to be used strictly for irrigation purposes. So when KSEB opposed supply of water for other uses, the family stopped it.”

“This is what has happened. The episode has no connection to the CAA protests. Following the incident, the district collector, panchayat president and the taluk officer visited the spot and promised to arrange funds to get the old borewell functioning again,” the Sub-Inspector added.

If this seems like a long post about nothing very much, it is. And it isn’t. In and of itself, the incident is minor. But the relative innocuousness of the incident is the point — it is a classic illustration of (a) how widespread the propaganda effort is; (b) how the right wing machinery uses any and all opportunities to sow discord and create enmity; and, (c), just how hard you have to work to get to the true facts — while, in the interim, a hundred other such false stories pop up in several different areas.

What is one to do? What do you do? How do you process “news” these days? I’d love to hear. And the reason I want to hear from others is that increasingly, all emerging signs point to a ruling party with an increasingly genocidal mindset. “Genocide” sounds harsh? Too much of an exaggeration? Over-reach? Remember that Raphael Lemkin, the Polish lawyer who first coined the word ‘genocide’ from the Greek ‘genos‘ (race, tribe) and the Latin ‘cide‘ (killing), defined the word in his seminal work Axis Rule in Occupied Europe thus (emphasis mine):

Genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. The objectives of such a plan would be the disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups

In other words, genocide could be a mass killing, but equally result from a death by a thousand social/cultural cuts. And in our country today, the targets are not just the Muslims, but also the Dalits, and other disadvantaged sections. With that in mind, read this:

Now read this entire thread by gay rights activist and columnist Brynn Tannehill. This is where we are now. This is where we are heading. This is why I find myself increasingly reading history. It is also why I’d love to hear from you guys.

Meanwhile, some odds and ends from the last 24 hours:

  • The Union Home Ministry, which had earlier transferred the Davinder Singh case from the J&K police to the NIA, has now transferred the Bhima-Koregaon case also to that agency. The fact that the transfer happened on the same day that NCP chief Sharad Pawar wrote to Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray is purely coincidental, right? There are rules governing such transfers, but yet again the GoI decided to invoke extraordinary powers. This is your reminder that the NIA is also in charge of probing the Pulwama attack (which was eleven months ago and counting); that the CRPF, which lost 40 personnel in that attack, had prepared an inquiry report pointing to large scale intelligence lapses; that the MHA denied there was any intelligence lapse and gave charge of the probe to the NIA; that the NIA is yet to submit a report on the outcome of its probe, or to file an FIR. Ask yourself why every issue, every incident with the potential to cause inconvenience to the GoI lands up with the NIA.
  • The Election Commission has banned former AAP member and current BJP candidate for the Delhi elections from campaigning for the next 48 hours. Because, this. Just one more in the escalating instances (here is a Union minister doing his bit) of gaslighting Shaheen Bagh — because? Because what those women have done, are doing in the face of all odds, is inspiring legions around the country, as this list of Shaheen Bagh-style sit ins indicates. And the spread of the Shaheen Bagh model is deeply problematic for this government — and its ideological parent — because a deeply misogynist power is forced to confront the one group it does not know how to talk to, how to handle: women. Determined, defiant women. Hence Ajay Singh Bisht’s recent diatribe: Where are the men? Because Bisht (and Shah, and Modi, and the rest) would by far rather have to confront a protest led by men; against women — with enraged Dalits backing them to the hilt, and Sikhs increasingly forming a vital third element — the RSS/BJP hierarchy is all at sea. And before leaving this point, here is an example of the determination women are bringing to this seemingly unequal contest: Read the story of Ajmeri Bibi. This is what they don’t get, the group that — ironically, paid to tweet — keeps trying to surface allegations that women protestors are being paid to show up.
  • Columbia Journalism Review had a panel discussion on government funding of newspapers. Quote: “To accept funding from government, no matter the alleged safeguards, puts us at risk of mortal conflict of interest. Whom do we serve then? Need I say it? Follow the money.” Read that in connection with this: an RTI inquiry revealed that between 2014-2018, the GoI spent Rs 5,200 crore on advertising. Meaning that Rs 5,200 crore of public money was used by the government for propaganda, and as an economic carrot/stick to coerce media houses. This is a government so cash-starved that it recently cut Rs 3000 crore from the education budget. Then again, who needs education when you can have propaganda instead?
  • A NewsClick article asks — and attempts to answer — the question: Is Karnataka the next Uttar Pradesh? Not quite yet, but we are taking baby strides in that direction. And that is sort of the point, right? Gujarat was the laboratory where the RSS perfected its playbook. This was then exported to Uttar Pradesh, where Ajay Singh Bisht added his own tweaks to the model. Now Karnataka, the BJP’s sole bridgehead in the south. All of this is exactly why this map, of the BJP’s shrinking political footprint, is so important: The less states under the BJP’s control, the less the area the RSS brand of bigotry will become institutionalised in. In passing, remember that in the Kodagu region the police carried out an ID verification drive the other day for no rhyme or reason? 500 people have been detained as a result, and none of us knows what happens to them next.
  • Among the rules governing our elected representatives, there is one that mandates that all MPs who have won election should, within 90 days, furnish full information about all movable and immovable properties he/she and members of the extended family own. An RTI inquiry reveals that only 40 MPs have complied, while 503 have not. Amit Shah is one of those who have not complied — giving a whole new dimension to “hum kagaz nahin dikhayenge“.
  • Speaking of elected representatives and rules, the Allahabad High Court has granted two days parole to rape-accused Bahujan Samaj Party MP Atul Rai, so he can take oath as an elected representative. That tells you all you need to know about the body that makes laws for the rest of us, and for the state of the country today.
  • A Patna college has banned girl students from wearing the burqa. The ban will not stand up to any legal challenge, but that is kind of the point: in various parts of the country, such actions that leech away at basic freedoms have become routine, the intent being to tire you out fighting each individual instance.
  • The government is preparing a law mandating the linking of Aadhar to the Voter ID. Remember that the Supreme Court has ruled that the linking of Aadhar to other services cannot be mandatory. Remember that the government has repeatedly said, even in court, that linking Aadhar is strictly voluntary; that it is needed only if you want to benefit from the GoI’s welfare schemes, or in the case of banks needing to know their customers for the purpose of giving loans, etc. Yet here we are, on the verge of passing another law that prima facie goes against the SC’s rulings — but the law will come, it will pass, it will be challenged, the courts will delay hearings… you know the drill, right? Remember, this involves one of your most fundamental rights as a citizen: the right to vote.
  • Dr Harjit Bhatti was one of those who responded to the January 5 distress calls from JNU. Remember that goons had stopped ambulances and cars carrying doctors from entering the premises, even vandalising an ambulance while the police stood by and did nothing? Remember that Bhatti and other doctors had gone into the university despite all these hurdles, to help? Okay, so they have now filed a case against him. Do you remember the story of one Dr Kafeel Khan? Here we go again.
  • I’ll leave you with this long piece by Somak Ghoshal, on an increasingly aware younger generation. And with this:

3 thoughts on “Where the 'truth' lies

  1. Yeah, that is the automatic — I was going to say cynical, but I didn’t want the assumption of pejorative — reaction. Just disbelieve everything unless/until there is triple confirmation.

    What I worry about though is that in the process, I am increasingly insulating myself from what is happening around me, and increasingly filtering out more and more “news sources”. Not sure whether I am the gainer, or the loser.

    What a world we live in!

    • I can see your problem. If you choose to engage with society as a journalist the situation is very worrisome. On the other hand, if you are a fiction writer or mythologist you might get lot of fodder.

      In my field (science) we have encountered a similar problem in the recent decades where poor science get published. The peer system which used to be a filter has been watered down to meet the supply/demand balance and commercial prospects. In the old days, as students we were taught not to put out weak idea / data / arguments / conclusions since it was a good way to lose your reputation. Now, with the crowding, the definition of ‘reputation’ has changed. It has been a uphill battle to educate students on how to assess quality and reliability.

      Ram

  2. How can we assess the truthfulness of the information we get? Good question.
    “(1) Intelligence; (2) The human need to avoid ambiguity and to decide, one way or the other; and, (3) The individual’s cognitive approach, which takes into account that some of us think in rapid, intuitive fashion while others take a slower, more deeply analytical approach”

    Hearing what our government leaders say in the past few years, my default assumption is that the fact must be completely opposite of what I hear. The only problem is with the messages from bots who cannot be identified whom they are a proxy for.

    Ram

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