Congress leader Rahul Gandhi interacts with public during the Congress party's Bharat Jodo Yatra on the 21st day in Malappuram on Wednesday Image Credit: ANI

It is perhaps the only deterrent against fake news. The Congress says it has initiated legal action in five cases for the alleged spreading of “fake and divisive news” by some BJP leaders to disrupt Rahul Gandhi’s 150-days long Bharat Jodo Yatra (Unite India March) for the country’s unity.

Among those at the receiving end of the notice is Priti Gandhi — a habitual social media baiter with the Twitter profile of ‘BJP karyakarta’ who went into a tailspin after seeing the image of a young woman hugging Rahul Gandhi in Kerala during his march.

Along with some other BJP leaders, she shared the photo claiming the girl in it was Amulya Noronha who in 2020 had raised incendiary slogans. Instead of Bharat Jodo Yatra, this was a ‘Bharat Todo Yatra’ she proudly tweeted because let facts not come in the way of a tweet. The girl in the photo is Miva Jolly, a Youth Congress worker in Kerala.

When it comes to the Congress leader the troll army has a tunnel vision and Rahul has himself fallen into the trap a few times but, since the yatra started attracting crowds in large numbers it is not just fake news centred around him that has been on overdrive.

Rahul Gandhi Kerala
A supporter presents a sketch to Congress leader Rahul Gandhi during his party's Bharat Jodo Yatra, in Ernakulam on Thursday, September 22, 2022. Image Credit: ANI

Lewd insinuations have dogged his every step and in another attempt to cast aspersions an image of the Congress MP with a young woman was circulated. This too backfired.

The photograph is from 2015, the girl is his niece and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s daughter. There has been no apology forthcoming considering that a young girl was put in the spotlight and her character questioned.

The signs were there as soon as Rahul Gandhi launched his yatra from Kanyakumari when minister Smriti Irani accused him of not paying tribute to Swami Vivekananda at the Vivekananda Rock memorial. She was misinformed, he paid his respects before starting on the march.

From effortlessly tying a child’s shoelaces to hugging a toothless elderly woman, Rahul Gandhi makes compelling images, but more than that he seems accessible when promises of getting rid of the VIP culture have remained just that, promises.

Data from the National Crime Records Bureau, an Indian government agency shows that there was nearly three-fold rise in incidents of fake news and rumours in 2020 from the previous year. It is safe to say with the seismic evolution in how fake news is brandished as truth both in the media and social media, those numbers have only escalated.

India: Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra is a nation wide march -- from Kaniyakumari to Kashmir – a distance of 3,500 km that the leader intends to cover in five months Image Credit: ANI

The country now has the dubious record of being labelled a hotspot for fake information and with 487 million WhatsApp users and low-cost internet penetration of 900 million by 2025, doctored information takes moments to go viral. Religion and politics form a bulk of this ecosystem.

A report says one news out of every six on Covid-19 generated in India during the early days of the pandemic was false whether it was targeted at a community for being a super spreader or encouraging shady medicines as cure.

Just this week a satirical tweet by a foreign journalist on a coup in China was picked up by an Indian news channel as ‘exclusive’ breaking news with guest discussions.

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“Two things are infinite,” the journalist, Georg Fahrion, wrote once he learnt of how quickly misinformation gets a life of its own in India, “the universe and man’s stupidity”.

Indian media has shown video games as war footage, a minister has tried to pass off street images from Russia as a part of India and an advertisement of the Agra-Lucknow expressway in Uttar Pradesh used photos from the city of Veria in Greece.

Millions are pumped in for the perception game. Such is the expanse of ingenuity and professionalism that a New York Times front page on the Indian PM was flagged as fake, the newspaper didn’t carry any story on the Indian PM that day. But by then WhatsApp forwards have already circulated.

Indian Government recently ordered the blocking of 45 videos from 10 YouTube channels for containing fake news, but what about handles like those of Priti Gandhi, whose mass following allows for information to be disseminated contrary to reality?

She and others of her ilk know that unless there is an international furore similar to the case of Nupur Sharma, she will not be put out to graze. She is only doing her job.

In India it is left to fact checking websites like Alt News to diligently expose the truth. Much like the society, India’s polarised digital ride begs the question, whose truth is it anyway?