The Pattern of Misinformation Infiltrating Indian Media Today

'India Misinformed: The True Story' is an extension of the online work of 'Alt News', which is geared towards debunking fake news.

The 20th century belonged to specialists – those who invested their lives towards studying a narrow area to develop unmatched expertise. The 21st century, however, belongs to multidisciplinary ventures where experts of varied fields join to take themselves and the rest to the next level in terms of our understanding and betterment of the world.

As most politically-inclined people in India know, the small team of the online portal Alt News has effectively used this multidisciplinary approach to combine their knowledge of technology, politics, science and journalism to not only debunk fake news but also provide the India citizenry with fact-based news and information. India Misinformed: The True Story, which has been edited by Pratik Sinha (co-founder and editor of Alt News), Dr Sumaiya Shaikh (a neuroscientist and the science editor of Alt News) and Arjun Siddharth (writer at Alt News), is an extension of their online work.

Pratik Sinha, Dr Sumaiya Shaikh and Arjun Siddharth
India Misinformed: The True Story
HarperCollins India, 2019

The book is a compilation of 82 of the over 1,000 articles written by the Alt News team since it was founded in 2017. In fact, a majority of what is in the book is available online. That Harper Collins has ventured to publish content which is mostly available for free online is not only a testament to the publisher’s commitment to truth but also an endorsement of the efforts of the Alt News team.

However, there are several bonuses in the book that even an avid reader of the portal may not have availed of online. The book is organised in 14 sections, each focusing on a particular category of fake news prevalent in India. The first and by far the longest section, titled “Spreading Communal Discord” lists 17 major fake news stories – mostly aimed at hurting the minority community – that the Alt News has effectively cracked.

Other notable sections list fake news items aimed at building the Modi brand, maligning Nehru and targeting Rahul Gandhi. Each section has an introductory segment and the categorisation effectively portrays the patterns of misinformation infiltrating a host of media in India today for the benefit of the reader. As Arundhati Roy has succinctly said, “This book doesn’t just expose lies, it exposes a pattern of lies.”

Moreover, each story has been skillfully abridged from the online version, thus providing the reader a bird’s-eye view within 304 pages. There is a preface by Ravish Kumar laced with lavish praise and written with customary eloquence.

Sinha himself has written an introduction that summarises how Alt News was born and the extent of the fake news menace in India. Dr Shaikh introduces the science section that has six chapters with each busting a popular pseudoscience story.

Also read | Post-Truth, Lies and Conspiracy Theories

The book is by no means a literary endeavour or an entertaining read. And some of the information in the book makes one cringe – such as the narration of fake WhatsApp forwards that contributed to murders and lynching. If you are politically aware and well-read, you may not even find anything novel in the book, now that the spectre of fake news has already been laid bare by efforts of Alt News and other fact-checking media outlets in India. But this book would make an ideal present for anyone you have received inflammatory and obviously fake WhatsApp messages and other social media posts from.

If one looks at current web traffic statistics on Alexa, Alt News has a country rank of only 4,816 among Indian websites. Other prominent fact-checking website Boom Live lags further behind with a country rank of 12,737 and SM Hoax Slayer stands at a lowly 55,179.

By comparison, several media outlets that routinely carry misinformation, and often with an ulterior motive, rank higher and attract much more robust viewership. Obviously a lot more needs to be done. Thus, if you find the content of this book to be not anything that you didn’t already know, you could contribute to this laudable movement against fake news by gifting a few copies to your near and dear ones who may not be as aware. And if you are one of those not so aware, here’s hoping that you will buy this book or receive it as a gift.

Jay Desai is a neurologist.