Fake news, spread by social media, is a burgeoning business in India, but is fuelling violence and dividing communities. TRT World speaks to three start-ups trying to combat it.
MUMBAI, India — On average, Pankaj Jain gets over 150 messages from people every day, enquiring about the news content they receive on the mobile messaging service WhatsApp.
A 39-year-old entrepreneur from India's financial capital Mumbai, Jain says almost 70 percent of the queries he receives are related to “fake news," a politically motivated reality that has not only triggered mob violence across India but also divided communities along the religious lines.
Two years ago, Jain started a news verification website, SM Hoax Slayer, after he came across a fake news post shared by his own relatives on a family WhatsApp group.
“My family was readily consuming these fake news forwards as real and basing their opinions on them. They still don’t question the source of the information,” Jain says. “And if they were doing it, I was sure millions of other internet users in India were no different. It’s a big problem and I wanted to do something about it.”
Since then, Jain has been verifying sensitive content that's either circulated by means of social media or mobile messaging apps.
“It’s not an easy task," he says. "It requires scrounging the internet for fake news. Plus, it’s unpaid, time-consuming and requires extensive online research, [doing the] fact-checking and most importantly, finding the original source of the news.”
Jain turns into a fake news ninja when he isn’t busy looking after his other business, which he refused to specify but casually described it as a "small manufacturing unit."
He also plans to launch a WhatsApp broadcast group to alert readers about fake news more quickly.
Fake news is a growing global problem. India is no different. And Jain is one of a handful of people in India who have taken upon themselves the monumental task of fact-checking any information that has a potential to divide society or generate hatred or violence.
The smartphone revolution in India, combined with cheap mobile data packages, has brought millions of Indians online in a very short span of time. According to the Mumbai based industry body, the Internet and Mobile Association of India, India is currently the second-largest internet market in the world, with close to 400 million users. This massive increase in outreach to even remote rural areas, coupled with ever easier content creation, has led to a surge of fake news. And, sometimes, it has had deadly consequences.
A deadly rumor
In July, the rumour that a gang of men supposedly abducting children in the central Indian state of Jharkhand was spread via WhatsApp. It soon mobilised a mob of several hundred people who ended up killing seven men. The rumour proved to be false. The slain men turned out to be innocent.
“WhatsApp is the preferred medium for spreading fake news and rumours in India," Jain says. "Its end-to-end encryption makes it difficult to track down the origin of the rumours.”
On August 14, a day before India’s Independence Day, he came across a photo of a motorbike packed with batteries doing the rounds on Whatsapp. The picture appeared to show the bike was armed with explosives and set to explode the next day, when the country would be commemorating and celebrating its day of freedom.
The picture was distorted. Jain found out that it was from a science project by a student.
But it’s not just ordinary people who fall prey to the barrage of fake news. In recent times, mainstream news channels, as well as politicians, have inadvertently succumbed to fake news.
In July, a mainstream Indian news channel aired a prime time story accusing Muslim missionaries of circulating “rate cards” in Kerala state. The news anchor argued that the rate cards carried a caste-based price breakdown to convert women to Islam. To convert an upper-caste Hindu girl, he claimed, the missionaries offered $10,791. And $1,800 was offered for a lower caste girl.
The channel even went ahead to suggest it was the handiwork of Daesh cells operating in the state. The story turned out to be based on a two-year-old rumour that had originated on WhatsApp.
Pratik Sinha, a Gujarat-based techie, founded Alt-News, a news fact-checking website, with his friend in February this year. Alt-News dissects fake news stories piece by piece, showing how each fake element is sourced from totally unrelated news items, and pieced together to deliberately misinform the wider public.
Sinha’s website identifies fake news, pictures and videos that one sees across media platforms and points them out. He also does takedowns of websites that are repeatedly found to be publishing news with “twisted facts.”
Even before launching his website, Sinha was taking down fake news and rumours through his Facebook page TruthofGujarat, while his friend contributed to the same cause through another popular Facebook page Unofficial Subramaniam Swamy, a parody account named after Subramaniam Swamy, a parliamentary leader of the ruling Bhartiya Janta Party, a media favourite for his outlandish statements about the minorities in the country.
These fake news busters use Google search and reverse image search to check if images have been manipulated. Tineye, a dedicated reverse image search engine, is another preferred tool do the same job. For fake videos doing the rounds on social media, Sinha breaks down the video into different frames before carrying out an extensive reverse image search to find its sources.
“It’s not rocket science. There are also a lot of [Google] Chrome extensions that can assist you in doing this,” he says.
Like Jain, Sinha also operates his websites from home. While he does most of the writing for the website, his friend handles the research part of the process.
In 2016, they both first thought about starting Alt-News after witnessing media apathy for a march by Dalits (untouchables) in Una. The march, dubbed Aazadi Koon or March for Freedom, was planned to galvanise the community and send out the message that they will not tolerate any more discrimination. The protest was in reaction to group of vigilante “cow protection” groups, or Gau Rakshaks, publicly flogging four young Dalit men for skinning a dead cow in Gujarat, western India. Dalits are considered to be at the bottom of the Hindu caste hierarchy. They remain one of the most underprivileged groups in India and are often discriminated against.
“The idea first was to counter fake news and to do people-related stories. But the high amount of fake news we are dealing with has kept us busy and there is also the lack of resources,” he says.
Sinha and Jain both concede that even their best efforts are hardly making a dent to the fake news ecosystem which is spreading like weeds across the country.
Although both Altnews and SM Hoax Slayer have been widely praised, even combined they only manage around 2.5 million page views a month. If they tackle an especially popular rumour, the numbers can go up further.
Sinha believes the online fake news industry in India is well organised and that those behind it "know what sells." Some of the fake websites, he says, are drawing more traffic than mainstream news sites and the money that can be earned through viral fake news stories through Google ads serves as a key motivation.
“Some of these fake news websites are definitely operated on a right-wing ideology,” Sinha says. “But they are run by young people making $600 to 900 (40,000 to 60,000 Indian rupees) through ads. And when there is no legal deterrent, there is no way to stop them.”
Elephant in the room
Rohit Khanna, a senior editor at The Quint, a digital media news website in India’s capital New Delhi, agrees with Sinha. He says the problem of fake news is bigger than most media professionals in the country are willing to accept; and that some of it is even “do-it-yourself.”
“A vast number of people are readily consuming news and content via social media, on their mobiles,” he says.
“Media professionals are also unaware of the various types of elementary technology that regular people now have at their disposal, which can easily allow them to ‘create’ their own content, their own versions of the ‘news’.”
After witnessing the rapid growth of fake news in India, The Quint recently devoted an entire section on their website to quash the massive inflow of “misinformation.” He says Webqoof which plays on the Hindi word bewakoof (stupid) was started “watching senior news anchors like Arnab Goswami repeatedly twisting the news by replacing fact with rhetoric,” referring to a controversial yet extremely popular news anchor, known for screaming at his interviewees.
Unlike Sinha and Jain, Khanna has a team of members, resources and a massive office at his disposal to fight the fake news business. But he concedes that even this isn’t enough. For him, it will take a combined effort by the entire media community in the country to weed out the fake news which is proving to a grave threat to their credibility.
Khanna, however, asserts that spread of misinformation to ignite tensions between Hindus and Muslims isn’t new to India.
“Communalism, and even casteism, which is another age-old Indian disease, today is continuing to thrive via fake news riding on WhatsApp groups,” he adds.
Khanna doesn’t see the problem going away anytime soon. He believes the fake news industry in India is still in its infancy and will only grow into a bigger problem unless “the government shows the will to do something.”
However, in the current political atmosphere in India where fake news and communalism could help sway elections, it seems highly unlikely that the Prime Minister Narendra Modi -led BJP government have the political will needed to seriously tackle spread of fake news.
Both Altnews and Hoax Slayer have received offers from investors to back them in the fight against fake news epidemic. But so far they have desisted from taking the offer. The reason? Jain is not sure if he really wants to run Hoax Slayer full-time. He does not want to give up on his main business. Sinha on the other hand is looking to go for crowd funding to keep it transparent rather than opting for unknown backers.
Going forward, no matter how Altnews, Hoax Slayer and other news verification websites in India decide to grow, it's clear that the task they have voluntarily undertaken isn’t going to be easy.