Shattering the sphere of fake news
The viral but not-so-harmful WhatsApp forwards relate to health issues, medicine, the Islamic State terrorist group and income tax violations.
As news of two Indian soldiers allegedly beheaded by Pakistan broke last week, several thousand WhatsApp groups came alive. A video purportedly showing the beheading, one by a chainsaw and another knifed in the throat while singing Vande Mataram, went viral.
A week later it turned out that the video was shot in 2011 and the men were Spanish drug dealers. It was exposed by Mumbai-based businessman Pankaj Jain who spends his spare time in debunking fake news as SM Hoax Slayer. "It gives me satisfaction. I don't want people to fall for a hoax," he says.
Sample what lands on your WhatsApp on an average day: Don Dawood Ibrahim dies of heart attack (false). New Rs 2000 notes have a nano-chip to track black money (false). A Hindu man being beaten up by Muslims in West Bengal (False again). And yet the forwards, videos, stories are being churned out endlessly.
This February, Pratik Sinha, a 35-year-old Ahmedabad-based software techie, co-founded a website and Twitter handle -altnews.in and @altnews_in -to counter "deliberate underground political propaganda". "It is extremely dangerous and no political party is working to stop it," he says.
Bangalore-based Check4spam.com, an organisation that works on exposing hoaxes, says it is having trouble keeping up. "We receive around 200 messages a day from people asking us to verify forwards. It's a struggle to answer them at the speed they are coming in," says co-founder Shammas Oliyath, a techie. "Today, we have over 1,000 unanswered messages on WhatsApp. Around 70 per cent are repeat posts, so we are hoping to have some kind of automation in place to handle this or a higher traffic in the future." It's something Oliyath and his partner, Bal Krishn Birla, also a techie, are working on beyond their day jobs. The site gets 250,000 visitors in a month on an average.
On the other hand, Ram Puri, a software engineer, believes that WhatsApp traffic is vital for generating public opinion. He is a member of 10 WhatsApp groups and receives almost 500 messages an hour. "I get to know if there is an incident in the country before it hits the headlines in a TV channel," he says. A self-confessed "nationalist", he says he keenly watches and forwards videos on the Army's offensive in J&K and other parts of the country. "Most of the mainstream media does not show the truth, but now we have ways to find and spread the information."
Young Indians like Puri are setting the internet on fire, whether through Facebook, WhatsApp or Twitter sharing news irrespective of how factual it is. The most common, Sinha says, are cow slaughter videos and those that fan communal hatred.
In 2015, for instance, the police said WhatsApp messages had led to a man being lynched in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, and four beatings in nearby Gandhinagar. Mohammad Akhlaq was murdered by a mob in his village house in Uttar Pradesh the same year after villagers said they had seen pictures on WhatsApp proving he had slaughtered a cow. Forensic reports later proved the meat was not that of a cow.
Experts say fake news falls in two categories -so-called news articles and videos published by various websites, Twitter handles, Facebook pages and YouTube channels and the other, WhatsApp forwards that go viral purely due to lack of information and feed the fear psychosis around an issue.
"These news articles or videos are run by either individuals or entities that have a certain ideological bias. Most of these websites that we have come across are run by nonjournalists whose goal is to twist public opinion in favour of a certain ideology," says Jency Jacob, managing editor of Boom, an initiative to counter false news. "The belief that 'mainstream media' does not speak the truth could be one of the reasons such website handles have gained traction. This is a global phenomenon and not restricted to India by any stretch."
The viral but not-so-harmful WhatsApp forwards relate to health issues, medicine, the Islamic State terrorist group and income tax violations, says Jacob. Boom's sister organisation, factchecker.in, also counters "news" or public statements that may be fake.Of the fake news that they receive for verification, health hoaxes could be as high as 20 per cent, Oliyath says. But how do these hoax-slayers dig out the lies? While software tools are used to trace videos on YouTube, keywords are reverse googled to find the original context. Sinha explains, "Sometimes, I break a video into frames and then search for the original. It can take an hour or a whole day," says techie Sinha.
Data scientist Rishabh Srivastava says fake news in India is of deeper concern since it is primarily spread through WhatsApp. Data analytics can show us ethnicity, gender profile of those forwarding a certain piece of news that helps us determine whether it is fake or not but the nature of WhatsApp encryption makes it difficult to counter it, he adds.
So, would a fake news law help clamp down on these elements? Lawyer Apar Gupta says India has the most prescriptive speech laws for a democratic country and a law on fake news might end up encouraging censorship. He instead points to the use of technological tools to call out hoaxers and beefing up traditional media by increasing spending on investigative journalism. "We also need to strengthen existing institutions like the Press Council of India," he adds.
"We have to respond to fake news faster by using the same technology that troublemakers use to peddle fake news," says Jacob."Otherwise, very soon it will be difficult to identify the counterfeit from the genuine and the loss will be for everyone."
Centre for Media Studies director P N Vasanti, whose non-profit monitors news media, says the malaise points to a bigger problem -the crisis of credibility that journalism is facing. "Fake news has arisen in recent times because we have not been able to adjust to the surge of technology and information (through social and digital media).But I am hopeful that this is a phase and we will emerge from it," she says.
Until then, the few good men and women hunkered behind their computers are our only hope.
America's 'faking' it too
Around the world, fake news spread through social media has been blamed for distorting perceptions and political debate.UN special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression David Kaye recently flagged the problem of fake news and the "risk that efforts to counter it could lead to censorship, the suppression of critical thinking and other approaches contrary to human rights law."
A University of Oxford study revealed that nearly a quarter of web content shared on Twitter in the battleground state of Michigan, during the final days of the US election campaign, was so-called fake news. Researchers at the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) also found that users shared approximately as many fake news items as "professional news" over the same period.