What to Believe — And Not Believe — About Fake News in India

The BBC's research is limited by its methodology and scale: 80 participants across three countries is too small of a number to make general and sweeping claims.

New Delhi: Does India have a fake news problem and if so, what consequences would it have for our democracy? There is still little research-based insight into how platforms built by Silicon Valley-based companies are being used to hijack public discourse in the country.

In the approach to the 2019 General elections, the question of how India’s institutions understand  ‘fake news’, in all its dimensions, will have far-reaching implications. Some data has emerged from think-tanks, media organisations and WhatsApp in the past year, which offers clues but only scratches part of the surface.

Recently, research conducted by the BBC in India has found that the rising tide of nationalism in the country is a crucial driver of fake news, and vice versa. Eroding trust in mainstream news media has pushed users to spread stories from alternative sources, which are often incorrect.

Eighty participants in India, Kenya and Nigeria gave BBC access to their mobile phones for a seven-day period in which researchers analysed participants’ media consumption as well as how they shared information via WhatsApp and Facebook.

Courtesy: BBC

Over 30% of the messages shared on WhatsApp by the Indian participants were about problems faced by the ‘common man’ and the need to preserve one’s culture, all of which were termed nationalistic in nature. Whereas, almost 23%  were about current affairs and almost 40% consisted of various scams and conspiracies.

Most of the participants seem to trust the original source of the misinformation, which is often family members and friends, and did little to check if the message they were reading/forwarding is factually correct or not.

The BBC‘s research also is limited by its methodology and scale: 80 participants across three countries is too small of a number to make general and sweeping claims.

Nevertheless, as the debate on why we fall for fake news continues, many believe that confirmation bias is the root of the problem — the idea that we selectively seek out information that confirms our beliefs, truth be damned.

For instance, a separate 2017 BBC study claims that while at least 83% of Indian news consumers are concerned about fake news, nearly 72% of them have a hard time distinguishing real information from made-up stories.

There has been an increase in efforts to fact-check propaganda and misinformation by websites like AltNews and BoomLive but their reach is still limited to a very small audience.

Who is spreading/falling for fake news?

While majority of mob lynchings followed by WhatsApp rumours have taken place in small cities, a 2018 study conducted by the Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF) claims that users in rural India don’t trust messages on WhatsApp blindly.

DEF collected data from 1,081 individuals across 14 states in India to understand the role of WhatsApp in spreading misinformation.

How often do you believe the information received via WhatsApp? Courtesy: Digital Empowerment Foundation

When asked to choose on a scale of 1-10, where 1 stands for complete distrust and 10 for complete trust, 14% respondents said that they never trust anything they received on WhatsApp. And only 8% of the respondents claimed that they trusted everything they received.

When asked if they believed viral messages on WhatsApp can lead to incidents of violence, a whooping 51.6% of the respondents agreed.


Left: What do you usually do when you receive a forwarded message on WhatsApp?; Right: On an average, how many forwarded messages do you receive in a day via WhatsApp? Courtesy: Digital Empowerment Foundation

Interestingly, 63.2% of the respondents said they did not use WhatsApp in 2014 or earlier and 40% said they are part of WhatsApp groups that have been created by members or representatives of political parties.

A separate 2017 survey conducted by Lokniti, a research programme at the Delhi-based Centre for Study of Developing Societies, found that around one-sixth of WhatsApp users said that they were members of a group started by a political leader or party.

This particular issue — on WhatsApp’s transformation from a person-to-person messaging application to a broadcasting medium — has prompted debate on whether these type of social media services should be subject to government regulation, the way TV channels and newspapers are.

For instance, while DEF’s survey places 40% of its respondents as saying they are part of a WhatsApp group that is politically-affiliated, the company insists that every 9 out of 10 WhatsApp messages are still sent from just one person to another.

Legal experts, however, believe with WhatsApp slowly becoming a medium for ‘mass-communication’ (one-to-many), parliament should fix responsibility on the company for fake news and communal content.

Do you think viral messages on WhatsApp can lead to incidents to violence? Courtesy: Digital Empowerment Foundation

Right or Left: Who falls for it more often?

To understand whether the spread of fake news was politically polarised, the BBC‘s latest research also analysed about 16,000 Twitter accounts and 3,000 Facebook pages and found a strong presence of the right-wing in the networks spreading fake news. Left-wing fake news networks were loosely organised, if at all, and less effective.

There was also an overlap of fake news sources on Twitter and support networks of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Several members of the Modi’s cabinet and BJP have in the past fallen for fake news and also deliberately promoted sites which spread misinformation created to malign certain communities.

A similar pattern has emerged in the US too. A recent study conducted by the University of Oxford found out that President Donald Trump’s supporters consume  the largest volume of ‘junk news’ on Facebook and Twitter.

Meanwhile, the Trump White House itself shared a doctored video of the President’s heated interaction with CNN’s Jim Acosta.


India has the second largest population of internet users in the world, according to data shared by Google. Around 40 million new users come online in India every year, and not just from metropolitan centers, but increasingly from rural areas as well.

Since the launch of Reliance Jio in December 2015, internet penetration in tier-2 and tier-3 cities have increased manifold. Analysts believe that Jio will have over 400 million customers by March 2020, which would be equal to 45% of India’s population in the 14-to-80 years age group.

Meanwhile, WhatsApp has over 200 million monthly active users in India. The Lokniti-CSDS Mood of the Nation survey found that 14% of respondents used WhatsApp on a daily basis in 2017. That figure jumped to 24% in 2018.

Number of monthly active WhatsApp users in India from August 2013 to February 2017 (in millions). (© Statista 2018)

In the last year, at least 30 Indians reportedly lost their lives because of rumours circulated on WhatsApp. While the Narendra Modi government has put the onus on the tech giant to place mechanisms to curb fake messages on its platform, no concrete steps have been taken so far.

WhatsApp had announced plans of building a team in India but has not hired one yet. Meanwhile, Facebook has hired senior BBC journalist Trushar Barot to lead its “work on combating fake news and digital misinformation” among other objectives to “in the digital development of a country with over a billion people.”

In September, chief election commissioner O.P. Rawat said the Election Commission has looped in Facebook, Google and Twitter to ensure that polls are not affected during the campaign period.

While Facebook has grown efficient at taking down misinformation shared in English and Hindi, its biggest challenge will be apprehending fake news in vernacular languages. The majority of users in the country today are Indian-language users. This number is expected to reach 500 million in the next two years.

The companies will also inform the EC about the expenditure on each political advertisement on their platforms, Rawat said.

Facebook has made attempts to increase transparency when it comes to ads funded by political parties in countries like Brazil and US. Under the new rules, focused ads on Facebook and Instagram will display a “paid for by” label showing who or which group purchased the ad.

With additional inputs from Anuj Srivas.