Agenda vs Facts: Freedom from fake news

August 15, 2020 4:45 AM

A careful look at data gives the lie to many popular media narratives about India, Viz. India as the “Rape Capital” of the world. India needs a ‘RIght to Truth’ Movement

It is a moral and fiduciary responsibility to ourselves, our community and the world at large, to rid ourselves of misinformation and fake news.It is a moral and fiduciary responsibility to ourselves, our community and the world at large, to rid ourselves of misinformation and fake news.

By TV Mohandas Pai & Anuraag Saxena

Soon after the dastardly rape in 2012, a prominent Western media-house labelled India the rape capital of the world. Predictably, lazy journalism, articles and OpEds followed, and the narrative was compounded across various media, including social media. So much so, that a prominent opposition leader regurgitated the slanderous phrase (much to Parliament’s chargin).

The world was on a spin with the “shame on the Indian male” narrative, and comfortable with reinforcing stereotypes.

It was all hunky-dory, except for one minor inconvenience. None of this was true!

Even a cursory look at data reveals that India has a per-capita sexual harassment crime rate of 0.52/lakh while many ‘developed’ nations hover between 7.93 to 17.92, with six countries over 50/lakh. Official data from Nation Master lists India at 84th rank (amongst 119) on the Rape Rate table, making it way safer than many developed nations (despite the likely under-reporting of crime that India suffers from, like many other nations). Don’t get us wrong. Even one rape is reprehensible, has the potential to leave permanent emotional scars, and should not go unpunished. But misdirecting the blame to India takes the attention away from the real victims in those 83 countries that have it far worse.

In short, India is far safer for women than some in media would lead you to believe. That is if you can resist the temptation to fall for anecdotal-narratives and look at factual data instead.

As consumers of information though, there is a choice to seek beyond provocative headlines, and clickbait OpEds. After all, as Nir Eyal put it, “Allowing someone to help you see the world differently is a gift you give yourself”.

Take examples of homicides. India at 1.18 per/lakh is relatively worse off than the UK and the US (0.38 and 0.12, respectively), but significantly better than South Africa, New Zealand and Sweden (at 6.27, 2.74 & 1.68, respectively). Doesn’t reconcile with the India-is-terribly-unsafe narrative, does it?

Misinformation on thefts and robberies is even worse. Media is stuffed with anecdotal information on tourists losing their luggage in Agra, or that elderly couple that are robbed at gunpoint in Pune. Data reveals though, that you are 80 times more likely to get robbed in Australia, than you are in the US or India (per capita theft-rates of 161.21, 2.02 and 2.98, respectively).

One would wonder why some journalists consider claims more fascinating than facts. All the more when these claims are from “anonymous sources”. The answer might be found in the old Gaelic expression, “Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story”. And, if you are sure Mark Twain said that, you are making our point for us… that deep-rooted narratives are hard to bust.

The misinformation is not just in crime-data. There’s a double fault at play here. India happens to be structurally more “woke” than nations that coined the phrase; and “they” won’t tell you that!

On the one hand, you will be told that India is filthy and polluted. On the other hand, India has a per-capita carbon-emission of 1.8 tonnes, way lower than the global average of 4.7 (across 194 countries) and infinitesimal compared to the US and Australia that have eight times more (16.2 and 16.9, respectively).
India’s reduced carbon-footprint might be attributed to a lower motorisation rate (18 per 1,000 population vs. EU at 602 or the US at 797, or to avoidance of methane-producing meat and beef farms due to India’s naturally woke diet (the top 18 of 172 countries have a per-capita annual meat consumption of >90 kg; India is 1/20th that). The one metric India doesn’t show a distinct advantage on is water-withdrawal, which is close to global-average of 611 m3 per capita.
Data reveals a simple fact—India pollutes far lesser, consumes more frugally, and lives more sustainably than most countries. Now compare this factual understanding with images of overflowing drains and billowing chimneys that have been thrust on your face. We are lucky if this comes from incompetent or lazy journalism. The alternative is, this manipulation comes from an insidious agenda.

Films like Salaam Bombay and Slumdog Millionaire might make you believe that kidnapping is commonplace in India. You might imagine parents have their children on leashes. However, India’s crime rate on abductions is 0.5/lakh compared to New Zealand’s 22.17, with Australia at a close second at 16.58. Public perception, on the other hand, pegs New Zealand as pure and pristine thanks to Lord of the Rings, and Australia as a land of culinary excellence thanks to Masterchef Australia. In his 2017 film, The Problem with Apu, Hari Kondabolu explores negative typecasts & racial micro-aggressions perpetuated by pop-culture giants like The Simpsons.

This micro-aggression legitimises micro-slander. NYT, in an institutionalised display of aversive-racism, mocked India’s space programme with a derogatory cartoon. Let it be damned that India’s Mars mission costed a tenth that of NASA’s ($73 mn vs $671 mn), or that India elevated a rocket-scientist to its highest constitutional office.

While data reveals insidious stereotyping that is not just unfair, but patently untrue, the “creative types” are found reinforcing misinformation very so often. Why care about the truth, when poverty-porn is so lucrative?

Populated countries are likely to have higher absolute numbers. Some in media prey on that fact. Others may not have the cerebral capacity or inclination to dig deep for facts and data. Regardless, it is a huge failure if the fourth estate chose to misrepresent, and sacrifice, facts at the altar of narratives. Hans Rosling, who made busting deep-rooted myths fashionable, had once said, “The world seems scarier than it is because what you hear about it has been selected—by your own attention filter or by the media.”

It is a moral and fiduciary responsibility to ourselves, our community and the world at large, to rid ourselves of misinformation and fake news. The era of information-availability allows us the tools for a manthan (churning). Whether we choose agenda-based vish (poison) or fact-based amrut (elixir of life) is up to us.

Our choices are, unfortunately, really quite simple. Swallow agenda-laced opinions, or seek the truth that data reveals.

Pai is chairman, Aarin Capital Partners, and Saxena leads India Pride Project

Disclaimer: Data in this article was sourced from https://datareveals.org/ where the authors are pro bono advisors

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