How Fiction Can Defeat Fake News

Illustration by Jackie Ferrentino

A specter is haunting the writing of fiction—the specter of fake news. I fear that my abilities as a novelist are being challenged by those who manufacture lies on social media. There is fiction and then there is fiction—falsities that lead to lynchings and riots. Both rely on storytelling, but that’s like saying soil is used both in gardens and in graves. The way language is used in each case is entirely different, if not opposed.

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 an especially harrowing case, rumors that kidnappers were abducting children and harvesting their organs led to the lynching deaths of at least twenty-nine people in different parts of the country. The stories were spurred by a video that had gone viral on WhatsApp, which purported to show one of these kidnappings—this despite warnings from journalists and police that the video was fake. 

In fact—in what has to be called a tragic bit of irony—the video’s footage had come from an ad 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 don’t have words,” he said. “I want to see the face of that man who edited that video for bad purposes.” 

It is a writer’s desire to give shape and voice to a character, however villainous. In the age of the internet, the person you are interacting with online is often anonymous; the person threatening you, perhaps in graphic or intimate terms, is hiding behind an invented name. Perhaps Alam was saying that he wanted to give evil a face because the idea of a faceless enemy was unbearable to him. Perhaps he was saying that the universe described in the fake video had no feeling, no interiority. In any case, I saw that he was appealing for the presence of something—someone—human. This is the realm of literature. 

Good, meaningful fiction does not confirm preexisting beliefs; its entire raison d’être is to disturb and challenge such beliefs.

Fake news stories have proved irresistible for readers. Studies have shown that people spread false news on Twitter six times faster than news that is true. Unlike novels, which create complex narratives that take time to consume and understand, fake news delivers ready-made conclusions to consumers with little or no context. These are sensational bits of information that do not provide nuance and do not invite interrogation. These stories are attractive to the numberless people presently invested in conspiracy theories—people drawn to a backstage view of reality. Fact-checking often uncovers the deception, but by the time something is proved false, who cares? The point was the thrill of being seduced by the lie.

Unlike literary fiction, fake news offers nothing that is new. Instead, it conforms to existing popular prejudices. It is formulaic, often sentimental, and has a quality of sickening repetitiveness. The child abduction video that circulated last summer was not 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 about roaming gangs of abductors and displaying dismembered bodies of children. The videos were so widespread that the police issued announcements urging people not to believe them. And yet, with frightening regularity, they provoked people into terrible, 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 man is accused of eating beef, or of killing a cow. He is beaten mercilessly. He is forced to chant Hindu slogans. Onlookers take part in brutalizing him; others shoot video on their phones. The police are often complicit. Top political leaders keep silent about these killings, lending tacit—if not overt—support to the killers. This is how lies and rumors, spread through WhatsApp, embolden bigots to act as armed vigilantes.

In Alwar, Rajasthan, in July 2018, a twenty-eight-year-old Muslim milkman taking his cows to his village was beaten up by a mob on the suspicion that he was a cattle smuggler headed to an abattoir. He lay injured in the field where it happened until the police arrived. It was later reported in Indian media that the police had made two stops before bringing him to the hospital: one, to drop the cows off at a shelter, and a second for tea. The man was pronounced dead upon arriving at the hospital. As a writer seeking individual pathos, what I found most moving in the milkman’s story was a statement by the man’s father; he reportedly said that his son so loved his cows that he would go hungry if there wasn’t enough food for the animals.

Genuine surprise, of the sort one finds in a story by, say, Anton Chekhov or Alice Munro, shakes us out of our complacent understanding of the world. It makes us skeptical of what we thought we knew about ourselves and, more than that, about others. But fake news does the opposite. It exists to create die-hard believers in an incomplete and intolerant view of the world. 

In October 2018—and here again I emphasize the nauseating familiarity of fake news campaigns—there was a train accident in Amritsar during a religious festival that resulted in the deaths of around sixty passengers. A viral misinformation campaign falsely identified the conductor of the train as a Muslim man named Imtiaz Ali—a complete fabrication; the actual driver was one Arvind Kumar, a Hindu name. This massive tragedy was compounded by the further tragedy of fake news. 

I often ask myself: Who dreams up these fictions, and where are these dark factories of the mind? Good, meaningful fiction does not confirm preexisting beliefs; its entire raison d’être is to disturb and challenge such beliefs. Against simplicity, complexity. Against judgment, understanding. Against fake news, the radical surprise of real life.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Amitava Kumar is the author, most recently, of Immigrant, Montana: A Novel (2018). He teaches at Vassar College.