Getting to truth of the matter

Ambika Shaligram
Saturday, 11 May 2019

In India Misinformed, a book that Pratik Sinha of Alt News website has co-edited with his teammates, he tells us how the misinformation campaign is widespread in the country and how political parties are taking advantage of it

This is the season of claims and counter-claims. The propaganda machines are working overtime, and morphed images and clipped videos are surfacing in media and on social media platforms. It is easier to dismiss this as a part and parcel of electioneering — it definitely is. However, the tentacles of misinformation have spread deep down in our society, feeding on our fears, biases and are amplifying them 200 times more. No country has escaped the phenomenon of fake news and misinformation, because all you need is technology support and a strong cadre to make the news go viral. 

Sifting information becomes tougher; so the work that Alt News website is doing is commendable. Alt News was born in a room in Ahmedabad in February 2017, with the primary focus of fighting misinformation propagated in Indian social media as well as mainstream media eco-system. It operates under not-for-profit entity called Pravda Media Foundation. 

Their work, so far, has been encapsulated into a book, India Misinformed: The True Story. It has been edited by Alt News teammembers — Pratik Sinha, Dr Sumaiya Shaikh and Arjun Sidharth. The book, published by HarperCollins, also has a section on science and tackles misinformation regarding vaccines, immunisation, virus. This report concentrates on the misinformation in political domain.

The book says, “The months of May and June 2018 were ominous in sofar as the sinister impact of misinformation is concerned. Rumours of child abductors abounded in various states. Same set of images were circulated across all the states. The rumours were localised. For eg if it was about child abductors in Maharashtra the message was circulated in Marathi and with mention to the place in the state. In August 2018, the rumours took a communal turn in Indore when message began to circulate that Rohingya Muslims were out to abduct children. This was first instance of communalisation.”

We talk to Sinha about the work that his team does and how all political parties are engaged in the misinformation campaign. Excerpts from the conversation... 

The Alt News comprises a team of 10 people, out of which six members are engaged in researching and writing. 

“We start with monitoring of social media, what’s trending. We use tools like crowd tangle, Google reverse image search, yandex search and so on. Every 30 or 40 minutes we get messages to check things which are viral. We have a WhatsApp number, people keep tagging us on Facebook, we get requests from a variety of sources. 

“We try to get to the truth of the matter by doing fact check. If an image is trending, we use Google reverse image search to find out what is the original picture. If it’s a video, we take it down clip by clip and see what the original is like. We always observe the videos carefully, if there are any clues like licence number of vehicles, or billboard to figure out where the incident happened and to reach out to authorities and individuals for information. Then, we research and write stories,” says Sinha.  

Alt News tries to debunk fake information by identifying the purveyors of fabricated news and exposing the propaganda machinery. To illustrate his point, Sinha gives the example of a video of Priyanka Gandhi Vadra in which it was shown that she taught children to abuse Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “If you look at the entire video, as soon as that slogan is raised, she stops the kids from raising it again. But the part in which she stops the kids is clipped out and it was circulated to suggest she is egging them on. This is the typical case of misinformation that goes viral, where there is malicious intent, where the person knows that Priyanka has actually stopped the kids from raising the slogan, yet they chose to clip out that part,” he says. 

There was another video of Rahul Gandhi, in which he is shown saying that women in UP bear 52 children per year. “He delivered that speech seven years ago in Uttar Pradesh. At that time, Mayawati government was in power, and Rahul was referring to an RTI query on Janani Suraksha Yojana, under which pregnant women would get Rs 700 for home delivery and Rs 1400 for institutional deliveries. In the RTI response, it was said that one woman’s name was found 52 times. So he was talking about the corruption that took place. This portion was clipped out. The funny thing was that one  BJP candidate from Khandwa retweeted it. He said, ‘Rahul Gandhi ko janta jawab degi. Unhone kaha ki UP ke mahilaon ko saal mein 52 bachche paida hote hai. The Congress went and clipped his speech, so now it would seem like the BJP candidate is saying, UP ke mahilaon ko 52 bachche hote hain’,” he adds.  

The work that Alt News has been doing so far can be considered niche. But now fact-checking is being taken seriously by mainstream media houses. 

“India Today and Times of India have a fact checking team, and so do Dainik Bhaskar and Dainik Jagran. It serves as a testament to how widespread the issue is. The more polarised the society, the stronger biases in it and more successful the misinformation campaign. When your biases are strong, you tend to fall for misinformation. For example, if anybody says anything negative about Modi, whether false of true, certain people believe in it. Rahul Singh, a journalist has a parody account called Juntakareporter and he put out a story saying that RTI inquiry reveals that Narendra Modi spent Rs 10 crore on mineral water. Everybody started sharing the link, not noting that the spelling is Junta,” points out Sinha.  

This brings us to the question of internet literacy. Do people believe every message that they receive? According to Sinha, with the arrival of fact checking websites, people now have the avenues to go and ask, ‘if this is true’. “When multiple people start collecting newer evidence, it tells that they have realised that there is misinformation and they now know that not everything can be believed. That is essentially what internet literacy is — not believing that everything that comes on WhatsApp is true. This thought process should spread to a much larger section of our society. In the past two years, we have had between 13-14 million unique visitors on Alt News. My observation is that out of these 13-14 million visitors, 200,000 people have read multiple stories on Alt News,” he adds.  

When asked what should be the government’s role in this, Sinha says, “Someone who is new to the world of internet and has got a mobile phone, doesn’t access the internet as we urban folks do. Their only window to internet is WhatsApp and when they get a message, ‘your child is going to be kidnapped or his organs are going to be trafficked’, they panic. When multiple people they know, send them the same message, they panic all the more. They start forwarding the message to people, friends out of concern. How do you criminalise a parent who gets worried about kids in the family? What eventually helped put the child kidnapping rumours to rest was when police fanned out in different areas, telling people ‘this is false’. This is how killings and lynchings were stopped. It was not because WhatsApp reduced the number of forwards to five. It is the administration which took steps. That’s what I am in favour of.”

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