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Is the internet our new system of governance?

Welcome to 2019. The year we watch democracy topple at the hands of the internet.

From reports of Trump signing a visa-free travel policy for several nations to pictures of the Indian National Congress celebrating their election win by waving the flag of Pakistan, there seems to be no limit to fake news.

A product of the social media war rooms, fake news has infiltrated our daily lives making itself extremely believable due the lack of accountability of the platforms themselves. While we witness America trying to combat it, India seems to be taking a different approach. Social media has been weaponised as propaganda and the 2015 national elections were proof that memes and status updates weren’t just laughing stock or leisure reads rather than think pieces. Politics is run by emotions and the BJP, India’s current ruling party, did not shy away from tapping into them. A storm of memes, tweets and WhatsApp forwards all spun out of lies helped them emerge as the ruling party of the world’s largest democracy. But was it a fair victory?

The core of democracy lies within people and their decisions. But these indirect online campaigns easily sway voters. With our attention span being at the bare minimum while we scroll through networking sights, we don’t stop to check the sources of headlines. As a result, we clutch onto articles faked by political institutions themselves – the USA, for instance, has been creating news websites and churning out misinformation for various campaigns. Opinions of the masses are now a creation of their political representatives. These representatives not only have authority when in a position of power but also are able to manipulate the verdicts to their favour. Citizens no longer can make an informed choice in their own time, rather they are swarmed with rumours by opposing political parties belittling one another.

Facebook tried to combat these war rooms by setting up their own during the Brazil elections. It did manage to remove hoaxes about the elections being postponed on their own platform but failed to do the same for WhatsApp, a place where Brazil consumes most of its content. This may be considered as a huge factor in the far right candidate Jair Bolsonaro’s win as the next President.

Have these war rooms helped the right-winged politicians around the globe become decision makers? The world seems to have shifted their outlook in the favour of the right wing which could be influenced by social media. Their ability to manoeuvre across the platform to find like-minded individuals while not being held responsible for deceptive posts has helped them gain a huge following. Especially in a time where many feel that liberal governance has been too slow, too corrupt or even failed their own nation. But the idea itself of the right wing being an alternative has been planted by their news engines and does not come from critical thinking.

2019 is going to witness several important elections including those of the European Parliament, India, Indonesia to name a few, all of which are said to be plagued with fake news. If not dealt with, the problem could have dire consequences on the future of those countries as well as the world. Fake news needs to be curbed to avoid communal tensions that have previously escalated to become violent. But how? Should there be an independent agency to monitor it or should social media websites themselves be held in charge for filtering out the rumours? The latter proved to be inefficient during the Brazil elections and with the continued presence of disinforming twitter accounts since the 2016 American Presidential elections. The former, on the other hand, is on the lines of impinging freedom of speech.

Reality is being easily distorted and citizens are unable to distinguish between the actual and the hoax. Democracy is dialling the emergency number begging to be saved. Our mission is now to find the right antidote.

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