New Mythologies of Fake News: WhatsApp and Misrepresented Scientific Achievements of Ancient India

New Mythologies of Fake News: WhatsApp and Misrepresented Scientific Achievements of Ancient India

Benson Rajan (Christ University, India)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-8535-0.ch012
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An ideological state project of assigning science achievements to that of Hindu mythologies is indirectly undermining democratic structures. Emergence of the fake news phenomenon within the current post-truth era has threatened India's state harmony. From its dominant role in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections to the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, fake news has become a political tool which was misused in both events. One of the major concerns with fake content creation appeared in its use by the central government to disregard science. Political leaders are achieving this by propagating fictional accounts of material inventions from mythological epics like the Mahabharata as the origin for modern scientific inventions like airplanes. Such fake content is part of Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) larger project directed towards creating a Hindu nation. These content are provided virality with the help of social media and online chat platforms like WhatsApp. The chapter tries to locate the role of the instant messaging application WhatsApp in establishing Hindu mythological achievements as the predecessor of modern science in India.
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Even though the discourse around fake news became relevant with President Donald Trump’s win in the 2016 presidential elections in USA, fake news penetrated into politics in India as well. Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) landslide win in the 2014 general elections in India saw the emergence of new media as a potential medium to establish a voting base. This was the first time social media and online chatting applications were seen as crucial campaigning tools in Indian politics (Bhattacharya, 2018). Sigerist (1938) explains that the origin of democracy collided with the development in science. He further claims that science has thrived only in the democratic period of history (Sigerist, 1938).

To counter a codified system like science which only accepts material proof, the state uses mythologies as an apparatus which can be controlled and cannot be easily verified. Feyerabend (1975/2000) is of the opinion that science and myth have a linkage that is not accepted by the scientific community. He explains that both share humans as their creator and embody an imperfection in their form (Feyerbend, 1975/2000). A basic difference that separates science and myth is their place in reality. Soni and Thapar (2014) highlight that myths are old legends and science is part of the history that has happened. They further elaborate that to replace science’s history with myth is incorrect (Soni & Thapar, 2014), which is what the current political leadership in India is doing. As mythologies constitute religious and group beliefs, the effects of such replacement are severe. For instance, Uttar Pradesh’s Deputy Chief Minister Dinesh Sharma claimed that the female protagonist of Ramayana, Sita, was born out of in vitro fertilization (IVF) (“Sita was a test-tube baby, says UP deputy CM,” 2018). In an attempt to place the machineries of modern science in mythology, the minister’s speech resulted in protests in Nepal and Bihar. The indulgence of mass population with an unscientific claim is one of the categories of fake news in India.

For Alcott and Gentzkow (2017), fake news comprises of all news content that is intentionally and verifiably false and hence misleads the readers. According to Flynn, Nyhan and Reifler (2017), misinformation is often created keeping people’s political ideas and ideological inclinations in mind. The polarization of masses on the basis of information happens primarily because of stringent political ideologies. The ideological slant that people harbor is a natural tendency towards creation and reception of like-minded content, which included political news as well, even with the option of exercising choice (Iyenger & Hahn, 2009). This selective exposure to information (Flynn, Nyhan & Reifler, 2017) is where the functions of online chat platforms like WhatsApp becomes important. As per Bakshy, Messing and Adamic (2015), people willingly share fake content online because of its resonance with their consistent attitude towards news content. This makes it easier for online platforms to filter news according to a user’s ideology and hence makes people prone to a linear narrative of newsworthy events. Further, people become participants in spreading the fake content through WhatsApp chat groups to people harbouring similar ideologies.

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