A slew of fake news during the pandemic has exposed the high levels of gullibility and collective irrationality among citizens. While fake news is often used as a devious tactic by political parties to manipulate the minds of voters, there are a host of others who have benefitted from exploiting just how gullible the masses can truly be.
This is a story on ‘prodigies’ and ‘geniuses’ who shot to fame riding on waves of fake news.
One such ‘prodigy’ is 23-year-old Prathap aka Drone Prathap from Karnataka who claimed to have built 600 drones using recycled materials. He also claimed to have won prestigious awards for his inventions. The compelling narrative of his success included references to poverty, walking long distances carrying heavy baggage to attend conferences and his mother selling her jewellery to pay for flight tickets.
A fake post which claimed that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had inducted Prathap into the Defence Research Development Organisation – an agency under the ministry of defence – went viral. Without adequately verifying his credentials and the authenticity of his claims, the media glorified Prathap and he was commended by actors and politicians. Donors generously contributed money to him.
It has now come to light that the awards Prathap claimed to have won are nonexistent. A fact check by Factly revealed that there are certain discrepancies in his certificates. The fact check also revealed that a drone which Prathap claimed to have built was in fact built by a German company.
He had claimed that his drone was used to deliver an antidote to save a snake bite victim’s life and what would take ten hours to deliver by road was delivered in just nine minutes using his drone. When confronted recently on a television channel, he hesitatingly admitted that he exaggerated the distance and speed. His fall from grace was made complete with a complaint being filed against him for cheating.
In 2017, it was reported that Harshith Sharma, a Class 12 student from Chandigarh, had been hired by Google as a graphic designer at a salary of Rs 12,00,000 per month. His school issued a circular congratulating him for his achievement and praising the efforts of his teachers. The story went viral and praises poured in for this ‘prodigy’. The news soon reached Google, whose representative clarified that Harshith had not been offered a job.
When questioned, the school produced a letter which it claimed Harshith had submitted to substantiate his claim. Despite appearing to be a patently fake offer letter, the school believed his claim and so did a large number of people who read the news reports and stories circulated on platforms such as WhatsApp.
In 2012, it was reported that 25-year-old P.V. Arun from Kerala had been recruited by the NASA. He claimed to be a doctoral fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. By 2014, he had shot to fame and there were reports of NASA relaxing rules to recruit him, the prime minister inviting him for a meeting, jobs being offered to him in India’s space organisations, etc.
However, his game was up when a vigilant police officer became suspicious of his claims. Till the time he was exposed, he enjoyed fame and was felicitated on many occasions.
There are many other instances like these and what is common is a narrative which stirs emotions and adheres to adages pertaining to the importance of hard work and grit. What appears to be missing is a spirit of inquiry and scientific temper among citizens which have precluded them from consuming news rationally.
Claims made by people like ‘Drone Prathap’ appeared to be patently absurd and it is unfortunate that it took more than a year for people to question the authenticity of his claims. Mainstream media also falls prey to the compelling narratives spun by these individuals and it reflects poorly on their due diligence.
Fake success stories of these ‘prodigies’ may have induced parents to exert more pressure on their children to attempt similar feats and to pursue engineering courses.
Intellectual laziness to question claims and the triumph of the emotional narrative over logic have fostered fakery and enabled fake geniuses to enjoy the limelight and the benefits associated with it till their lies are busted. It is time to pay attention to Article 51A(h) of the constitution which prescribes a fundamental duty to develop scientific temper and a spirit of enquiry.
Without these qualities, citizens will remain vulnerable to being fooled by fake geniuses and news about UNESCO declaring the Indian national anthem as the best national anthem in the world.
Rahul Machaiah is a post graduate student of law at Azim Premji University, Bangalore.
Featured image credit: Michal Lis/Unsplash