New Delhi: Five times in two weeks – that’s how many times US President Donald Trump has recently tweeted about ‘fake news/fake news media/fake news reports’. He probably believes in the pedagogic tactic that repetition will lead to remembering and is right to do so. Besides Fox News, which Trump quotes from often, he shares news from a variety of small, unheard of websites. For the president of the United States, those websites are credible while well-known organisations like NBC News, ABC News and the New York Times are not.
The Indian media too has come under the shadow of severe ‘feku’ activities. From the ridiculous, to the serious, the we are seeing it all. Readers were recently informed by François Gautier in the Times of India that Nostradamus prophesied the rise of Narendra Modi – ‘Narendrus’ – in the 16th century. Gautier was given the trolling of his career as his assertions were ripped apart. During demonetisation, Zee News star anchor Sudhir Chaudhary did a whole segment on how the new Rs 2,000 notes had a GPS chip in them, designed to ensure Narendrus wins the good fight against black money. The RBI had to clarify that no such advanced features had made their way into its currency notes.
Globally though, the menace of fake news has made consumers and producers take the phenonmenon seriously. There was a time when the media itself would be responsible for holding people to account. Today the situation is such that external watchdogs have to keep the media accountable. But this accountability can only be extended to – and demanded of – formal news organisations. None of these rules apply to the explosion of dispersed sources of news and information that we now have through social media.
CrossCheck, for instance, is a consortium of about 37 publishers mainly from France and Britain. They began work in February for the French elections and have come together, across professional rivalries, to debunk false stories. Participants include the BBC, Channel 4 News, Le Monde, Agence France-Presse and Buzzfeed. Stories are checked and then given a ‘true,’ or ‘false,’ stamp. Some stories are flagged of as ‘caution’ for being misleading, even if not outrightly false.
It is at this point of evolution between traditional and social media that a number of organisations have stepped in to do what was once considered basic, but is today considered an almost indulgent activity – fact checking. They are trying to fill this gap of accountability. In Argentina, Chequeado, for example, shot to prominence for fact-checking the Argentinian election campaign in 2011. These organisations do a few main tasks – they fact-check information from news outlets, rumours from social media, and statements from public officials and offices.
CrossCheck recently fact-checked a rumour that tombstones in a Jewish cemetery in Paris had been desecrated in March. The rumour had taken on political colour with many seeing it as an act of anti-Semitism. The reality was very different – a truck had in fact rammed into the cemetery while trying to avoid a collision with an oncoming car.
Correct!v is an investigative journalism venture based in Germany. Among the experiments that Facebook is making to crack down on fake news on the social networking site is its tie up with Correct!v. The German organisation has a four-member team dedicated to busting fake news; Facebook fields suspicious news articles to them. Quite like in India, senior reporter David Crawford notes that Europe too is always seeing elections. This is often the period where fake news spikes. “Its important to not allow people to manipulate the political system. We see media and political outfits simply invent stories. Readers don’t read anymore. The purpose of these fake stories is not to get them to read anyway. Its to just grab people by the headlines,” he says.
Fake news in India
Closer to home, an alliance of this sorts seems unlikely. Even individual efforts on this front are almost too few to be counted. If anything, the overall atmosphere seems to be one that pushes away from skepticism, criticality or questioning, and towards acceptance at face value, especially of stories and claims that are deemed politically convenient. This is inspite of the huge size of the Indian media market.
The new website AltNews.in is the one which fact-checked Gautier’s column in the Times of India, where he described the serendipitous discovery of an “old trunk” of papers that spoke of a strong leader like Modi.
Pratik Sinha, who runs the website, found that Gautier had several times in the past talked about recent discoveries of this “old trunk”. He also backtracked a video that was going viral on social media, claiming to be that of a Marwadi woman married to a Muslim man, who was beaten up for refusing to wear a burkha. Sinha used a few digital tools and managed to zero in on the source of the video – he found that it was in fact a two-year-old video and not even from India. It was a video of a woman being beaten up in Guatemala.
Some of the techniques he uses are to break up videos into frames and then search for those images online, until he can zero in on the original source. Sometimes a simple web search describing the actions in the video will often take a vigilant user to a news story about the video. This is also something that came true for Sinha in the case of the Guatemalan video. By combining Google and Facebook searches, Sinha has been able to find the original Facebook post that may have kicked off further content.
“We are seeing two things. There is an underground propaganda, where unverified content floats around on informal unregulated channels of social media. And then we have overground propaganda where well known news organisations have begun pushing news which fits certain politics,” he says. Sinha used to undertake debunking of news on his own Facebook profile but he decided to start his own website “to reach people outside of the Facebook bubble who all by and large are likeminded.”
Last week Sinha fact-checked a video being circulated on WhatsApp by right-wing groups with the mischievous cation of ‘Muslim man kills Hindu in Nawada, Bihar.” The video was sent out the day after the Bihar town saw a minor communal disturbance. Sinha discovered that the video in question was actually from Comilla, Bangladesh, and showed a clash between goons associated with rival political parties.
But given that there are ‘alternative facts’ on a plethora of alternative news portals, perhaps mainstream organisations need to play along with the new rules as well. “News organisations need to get on to the same platforms where fake news is published… and start publishing there,” says Aayush Soni, a social media consultant based in Delhi. Many organisations have already been doing this. For example, BBC, during the Indian elections in 2014, had a dedicated WhatsApp broadcast in Hindi and English. WhatsApp is also the hub for a lot of unverified content to fly easily and free. Soni says even verified news content should be shared on the same space. “It is not that we are behind other countries but it is that the digital news space in India is still young. Legacy organisations are still struggling to figure out what is the role for their way of verification and reporting, in social media.”
The fake news problem is compounded by the firm causal link that has developed between social media and the news. What happens on social media, becomes news because news editors are under pressure to produce ‘trending’ content. Sometimes, even if that social media information, is fake. In India, we saw this in the case of the JNU controversy, where several channels ran footage which was not shot by their own reporters, purportedly showing students chanting “anti India” slogans. The videos were later found to be spliced, with an audio from some other clip overlaid on the JNU clips. Channels did not run disclaimers attesting to the non-verification of the content and did not offer any apology after they were called out for it.
“How absurd that social media decides the news agenda,” says independent journalist and author Ammu Joseph. Joseph is also a core member of the Network of Women In Media. “There are times journalists send mails to the group saying, ‘Forwarded as Received.’ This is a basic skill at least journalists should possess – to not send unverified information and without responsibility.”
Combating fake news
“The credibility of the media is at rock bottom today. It is a good enough reason for journalists to come together to do something about fake news,” says Joseph. She feels that organisations should even use it to leverage themselves as being ones who do not do fake, false or misleading news. She flags off an advertisement in a newspaper that said, “Don’t go by fake news!” The same newspaper also recently published a front-page story saying that missing JNU student Najeeb Ahmed had been searching for ISIS-related information online. The Delhi police promptly denied the story. The newspaper then published a 95-word statement which came from the police public relation’s office, saying that the police had not found any ISIS-related search history. This however, was on page five, very different from their front-page splash. Neither the newspaper nor the reporter issued any clarification, apology or retraction. And the fake story remains live on its website.
Between the competing forces of fake and real news, Crawford says, “People who want to use technology to manipulate the news, have found a way to do it. But there are creative people on both sides. In Germany, politicians are looking for a top-down solution to combat this. I myself go to schools to talk to students about how to recognise a problematic story. There are technical solutions and social ones.”
Instead of organisations picking up content from social media and running it as news, what would it be like if we spun that idea around – what if traditional news ran stories challenging what is making news on social media? As much as new media is challenging traditional beliefs about truth and fact, some rules could and should remain the same. “Journalists should not drop their basic hygiene practices,” says Soni. “Rumour has basically attained a social media platform. Take what you get on social media, just as you would with any other tip off, lead or leak. But even if this might be the source of one’s story, it doesn’t mean the information doesn’t need to be verified as would be the case with any non-social media tip off as well,” he says.
From his work at AltNews.in, Sinha says what can be the best expectation for the future. “I saw even right wing people sharing my stories where I debunked right wing propaganda. I guess people can disagree with me on ideological grounds but they can’t disagree with me on my fact checks.”