Combating fake news is difficult everywhere, but it poses particular challenges in India. In the world’s second-most populous country, fake news can quickly spread on a massive scale. And in a nation where mob violence is a recurring problem, this can have gruesome real-world consequences: last year, false claims that spread through WhatsApp about strangers abducting children led to mobs lynching seven men.
In the past few years, a handful of impassioned fact-checkers have been trying to make a dent in the flood of misinformation being shared every day on social media and via messaging apps.
The first, in 2015, was Pankaj Jain.
At the time, friends and relatives were sending me stupid messages on WhatsApp saying things like, if you buy such-and-such brand of cold drink, you’ll get AIDS, because someone added a virus into it. I knew that you couldn’t get AIDS like that, but I didn’t want to just tell them, “This is wrong”, I wanted to give them proof. So I’d do research online, which led me to discover hoax-busting sites from the United States and Australia. I thought, I should do the same!
And that’s what Jain has been doing ever since, via his site Social Media Hoax Slayer (and via Facebook, Twitter and Signal). For him, it’s a labour of love: he runs a small business in Mumbai during the day, and then, once he’s tucked his kids into bed, he spends a few hours every night debunking fake viral claims. He says readers generally send him between 20 and 30 questions every day, asking about information they’ve seen online and which they suspect is fake. This can take the form of photos, videos, quotes – but what Jain has noticed is that on any given day, most of his readers point out the same story that’s gone viral.
Screengrab of the front page of Social Media Hoax Slayer.
Then, he checks them using the same techniques as fact-checkers around the world: online research, often using free tools like Google Image reverse search or FotoForensics – and a good deal of common sense.
For example, last year, one viral video that many mainstream media outlets picked up showed a highway full of cars in a hailstorm. This was supposedly in Mumbai, where a big storm had been announced. But the cars were driving on the right side of the road …and in India, we drive on the left side! I noticed a number plate on a car, and it was not from India. So I searched on social media for “hailstorm” until I found the original images, which were taken by a journalist in Istanbul. I contacted him and he sent me high-res photos showing the same cars.
In late 2016, the independent digital media outlet BOOM, which had started as an all-purpose news site back in 2014, decided to focus all its attention on fake news and fact-checking and launched a fact-checking site, BOOM FactCheck. They recruited a team of four journalists, led by former business journalist Jency Jacob, who debunk everything from fake claims about public figures to health hoaxes such as, “There’s plastic in your rice/cabbage/wheat!” [Hoaxes about plastic in food are an international phenomenon; the France 24 Observers team has reported about it in Africa].
The outfit was recently certified by the International Fact-Checking Network. BOOM runs a WhatsApp helpline, so that people can send in their questions. Their readers can also sign up for a WhatsApp broadcast group to receive all of their debunked stories.
Screen grab from the front page of BOOM FactCheck's front page.
In February 2017, fact-checking site Alt News appeared on the scene. The small enterprise, which runs on donations, was founded by Pratik Sinha, a software engineer active in human rights advocacy, and a friend of his who has chosen to remain anonymous (“A lot of fact-checking we do is in the political domain, so that can turn you into a target,” says Sinha). Prior to launching the site, both were very active on social media, and found themselves frustrated by how often they had to debunk fake claims. “We saw that the ease of anything false becoming viral was increasing, so we saw the need to bring this issue up in a bigger way,” Sinha says.
Screen grab from Alt News' Facebook page.
The problem with WhatsApp
Jain of Social Media Hoax Slayer, Sinha of Alt News and Jacob of BOOM FactCheck all say that in India, the vast majority of fake news circulates via WhatsApp.
It’s extremely popular here. With data prices falling drastically, many daily wage workers have recently bought cheap smartphones, on which it’s easy to use WhatsApp. Many new users are uneducated, and so they usually automatically believe fake news that friends forward to them.
WhatsApp is a peer-to-peer messaging app that uses end-to-end encryption – which is great for privacy, but makes it difficult to trace the source of fake news.
We know that if something is viral on Facebook, it’s at least five times more viral on WhatsApp, even if we can’t know the exact numbers. On Facebook, I’ll often see a video that’s shared with the same exact text by different people who have no friends in common – in that case, it’s clear they’ve been picking it up from WhatsApp.
At this point in time, however, it’s very hard to reach people on WhatsApp to warn them about a fake story. On Facebook or Twitter, you can publicly reply to a viral post and say, hey, this is fake. But on WhatsApp, since it’s peer-to-peer, you can only tell the person who sent it to you that it’s fake – and unless they pass the message back on to the person who sent it to them in the first place, that person will never know.
When fake news stokes communal tensions
Another major theme is communal hatred. Jain of Social Media Hoax Slayer says:
There’s a horrific video that I’ve seen pop up frequently since 2016. It shows a mob beating a teenage girl and setting her on fire. Sometimes, it will be shared with the claim it’s a Muslim mob attacking a Hindu girl; other times, it will be the opposite. But in fact, it’s neither: the video was filmed in Guatemala.
Sinha of Alt News has also seen many examples that targeted minority groups. One of them involved a cow, which is considered a sacred animal for the majority Hindu community:
A video showed a cow whose jaw had been blown apart, and people sharing this video claimed that Muslims had strapped a bomb to the animal. I contacted the local police in the town where this had supposedly happened, and the police said yes, a cow had been injured by a bomb, but that it had nothing to do with the Muslim community. What actually happened was that a local nomadic tribe used homemade bombs, detonated by a trigger device, to hunt wild animals. And the cow happened to graze on the bomb…
Jacob of BOOM FactCheck says that his team members also often call up local police to check claims made on social media:
“I’d say that in 95 percent of cases, the information that we see circulating on Facebook, Twitter or WhatsApp, usually targeting a particular community, is different than what the cops tell us.”
So who’s spreading all this fake news in India? Even for full-time fact-checkers, that question is impossible to answer. However, they do see some patterns.
Jacob of BOOM FactCheck says that whenever possible, his team reaches out to social media users they spot sharing a fake story and ask them, “Where did you get this? Why do you think it’s true?”
Often, when we tell them they’re sharing false information, they apologize and delete it. But then, there are repeat offenders. Their only job seems to be to suggest biases against certain communities. Those people, we don’t bother contacting, since for them, proof doesn’t matter.
While it’s difficult to unmask the true identities behind these accounts, Jain of Social Media Hoax Slayer has analyzed how some of them work together using names that impersonate public figures. He says:
“The fake news they spread seems designed to go viral and get many shares, so it can be hard to pinpoint whether they’re doing this to support a certain ideology, or just to get clicks toward their websites and generate money.”
Pages that share fake news are not a minor phenomenon – some have followers that number upward of 3 million, says Sinha: “That’s more than the population of some countries!”
In March, the man behind one of these repeat offenders, a site called Postcard News, was arrested after sharing a false report that Muslims had attacked a monk of the Jain faith. He was charged under several sections of the law, including "promoting enmity between groups".
In the past, Alt News had frequently called out Postcard News for sharing fake claims that seemed aimed at stoking communal tensions, notably targeting Muslims. Sinha says:
Some politicians, including members of the [ruling] BJP Party, came out to defend him, citing freedom of expression. I advocate for freedom of expression, but in India, fake news like this can and does lead to riots and deaths, and right to life comes above freedom of expression.
However, Sinha doesn’t think that simply arresting repeat offenders will solve the fake news problem in India.
You can’t just keep arresting people – for a lot of fake news, you’ll never find out who started it. What we need to solve in India is the digital literacy problem. It has to start at a school level. Today, even kids are on WhatsApp, and they’re getting exposed to hate propaganda without the skills to distinguish what’s real and what’s fake.
Reaching their audience
For India’s fact-checkers, reaching their audience – that is, people who fall for hoaxes – is a massive challenge. In the largest-ever study of fake news, researchers found that falsehoods spread faster than accurate information on Twitter, suggesting that debunked stories reach only a small fraction of those who have been exposed to a fake news item.
While Sinha is aware of this, he remains optimistic:
“A big part of the challenge is that people who are reading our articles and people who fall for fake news are two sets that don’t intersect very much. However, all of AltNews’ content is under a Creative Commons license, so anyone is free to pick up our content, and mainstream media outlets have done so in multiple cases.”
Another major challenge is that India has 23 official languages, and many more dialects. Alt News publishes in English and Hindi, while BOOM FactChecker currently publishes in English only, though they plan to add Hindi soon.
Jain of Social Media Hoax Slayer, who works alone and has no funding, doesn’t plan on adding more languages anytime soon. His hope is that regional newspapers and TV channels will see what fact-checkers are doing and become inspired to get into the debunking business, too. “That’s the only way to move forward,” he says.