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Fake news warriors: Meet the people who debunk fake news, one post at a time

There’s a deluge of fake news on social media and some TV news channels, leading to the spread of dangerous disinformation. But there are websites such as AltNews, Boomlive and SMHoaxslayer which regularly call out such lies

long reads Updated: Jul 10, 2017 19:33 IST
During communal riots in Baduria, West Bengal last week, the  Facebook post shown above was widely circulated. It portrays Hindu women being molested during the riot.  The image is a scene from a Bhojpuri movie released in 2014.
During communal riots in Baduria, West Bengal last week, the Facebook post shown above was widely circulated. It portrays Hindu women being molested during the riot. The image is a scene from a Bhojpuri movie released in 2014.

In Kerala’s Kasargod district, Islamic State is luring young Hindus with money. The terror organisation has a rate card which carries the amount – one lakh to 7 lakh – given to IS recruits to convert Hindu girls. The rates are five lakh for a Hindu Brahmin girl, seven lakh rupees for a Sikh Punjabi girl and 4.5 lakh for a Hindu Kshatriya girl.

At least, this is according to a report broadcasted on a national English news channel in June. The basis of the ‘rate card’ was a fake WhatsApp message which had been doing the rounds for more than a year.

It was one of the many distorted stories that were shared on social media and one which the news channel fell for.

Apart from influencing the political discourse and triggering communal violence, these stories – often in the form of image with text written on it – can result in explosive situations when circulated in an already charged atmosphere. For more than two months, villagers in Jharkhand, a child trafficking hub, were receiving WhatsApp messages carrying pictures of purported details of child traffickers including their attire. The result? In May, villagers lynched seven men to death mistaking them for kidnappers.

It is in this backdrop that organisations such as AltNews, Boom and SM Hoaxslayer have taken it upon themselves to call out fake news. They monitor social media to identify information which prima facie appears false, verify it and if the information is fake, relay the correction.

Watch: How are fake forwards, images and videos identified.

It was an AltNews investigation that found out the truth about the IS rate card while Boom ran a reverse search to prove that the image of man and a little girl with blood on their faces, with accompanying text saying that they were making India secular by playing Holi with the blood of a cow, was actually a picture from Egypt.

With the surge of digital platforms and the penetration of smartphones, fake news reaches many more people than before. Which means that by the time websites debunk fake news, proving that an image or video is flawed, it has already been shared and believed by thousands of people.

GOVT HAS TO STEP IN TO CHECK FAKE NEWS: PRATIK SINHA, CO-FOUNDER, ALTNEWS

Pratik Sinha, co-founder, AltNews at his Ahmedabad office. (Sidhharaj Solanki/HT Photo.)

In August 2016, Pratik Sinha, Ahmedabad-based techie and founder of the website truthofgujarat participated in a more than 300 km long march on foot from Ahmedabad to Una to protest the flogging of Dalit men. Concerned to see that there was hardly any media coverage of the march, Sinha, and a friend decided to launch a digital outlet to talk about people’s issues. Debunking fake news was one of the objectives of the site. When they eventually launched AltNews in February this year, their posts on fake news attracted far more attention than the other features of the site. Since then, they have done numerous fake news breaks.

“We keep track of social media. We also keep getting messages from people asking us to verify forwards which do not appear genuine to them,” says Sinha. “Thirdly, we look for virality of an item on social media. For example, during Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the US last month, his loyalists circulated a video claiming that it was Modi’s cavalcade in the US. The video went viral. We checked and found that it was footage of Barack Obama’s entourage from 2010,” says Sinha.

The possible impact a fake news item can have on people is also a parameter. On June 28, there was a protest titled ‘Not In My Name’ in different cities to condemn increasing incidents of mob lynching over beef. An English news channel ran a story claiming that Indian organisers were roping in people from Pakistan to organise similar protests there. Sinha found out that a Pakistani girl wanted to conduct a protest on the same lines in her country. She got in touch with one of the Indian organisers asking him if he could post the Pakistani protest information on his Facebook page. So, it was the Pakistani girl who initiated the conversation and not the Indian organisers, as the news channel would have you believe. “Such news items can influence people’s perceptions,” says Sinha.

Exposing fake news also made him realise that ideology is not the only driving factor for people involved in spreading half-truths, particularly through sites such as postcard.news and hindutva.info. “Money is a big incentive. They have understood that if you write about Prime Minister Modi, Yogi Adityanath or the Indian Army, you will get more clicks and thereby more advertisements,” he says.

Above: A fake news break by AltNews

Another emerging pattern is the appearance of a fake video coinciding with a major political event in the country. When the mainstream media was debating the Left versus RSS battle in Kerala, a fake video went viral showing a man being stabbed multiple times. The video claimed that it was an RSS worker being murdered by a Left worker. In fact, it was a video from Mexico.

People getting lynched by mobs is one very visible consequence of fake news. But that’s not the only impact. Sinha recalls a four-minute video that was supposedly of a Hindu Marwari girl from Andhra Pradesh married to a Muslim man; she was being beaten up and burnt alive by a few people belonging to the Muslim community, all because she was apparently not wearing a burqa. It is actually a video from Guatemala. “People have been sharing it since February 2016 and not a comma has been changed. It shows the kind of degenerative affect such footage has on people’s minds,” says Sinha.

However, he is yet to come across any evidence which points to the spread of fake news being organised, except for a few times when he noticed people associated with the BJP directly or indirectly forwarding such messages on WhatsApp or retweeting them. “But then anyone can fall for fake propaganda. I cannot equate that to say that it is organised,” he says.

Given the scale at which fake news is spreading and how people believe in it blindly, Sinha says that sites such as AltNews are not enough to fight the menace. “The government should put a solid mechanism in place to fight fake news and put out advisories telling people that this is a fake video, please do not circulate it. Newspapers and news channels should carry these advisories. Also, social media platforms, particularly WhatsApp have a crucial role to play,” he says.

—Report suspicious images, videos to AltNews at contact@altnews.in

POLITICIANS MAKE UNSUBSTANTIATED CLAIMS WHICH PEOPLE LAP UP: JENCY JACOB, MANAGING EDITOR, BOOMLIVE

Team of boomlive.in at their Mumbai office. (Aalok Soni/HT PHOTO.)

In 2014, Govindraj Ethiraj, former editor-in-chief of Bloomberg TV India, started the not-for-profit platform, Factchecker.in to fact-check policy-level news. It wasn’t long before he realised the need for a platform that examined everyday news too. Enough reports, videos, forwards and statements seemed to be dubious, misrepresentations or outright lies. That’s how Boom, initially launched along with Factchecker as a news portal, turned into an independent digital journalism initiative, around the end of 2016.

“Especially after the election of Trump, news from around the world was being broadcast through WhatsApp and social media with velocity despite having no veracity,” Ethiraj says. “We realised there was a huge gap in what the media was trying to say and what people were believing, so we decided to use Boom to break down every such story.”

Boom’s four-member team works towards debunking at least two to three news items every day. Managing editor Jency Jacob checks WhatsApp groups for bizarre forwards and images that might need closer examination. The team does exhaustive web searches to look for plagiarism, does reverse searches for images to find their source and digs through news archives of credible sources like the Associated Press. Boom also has a helpline number, where people can send in any news item that sounds like a hoax. “The first step usually is trying to get in touch with the person who posted the news on social media. That starts off the trail,” says Jacob. “With WhatsApp that becomes difficult.”

Boomlive.in reported that the above image, circulated as that of a man a girl with cow blood on their faces, was not from India and had nothing to do with cow.

The way they see it, there are two types of fake news: the kind with malicious intent, to defame someone or spread communal tension, like an image that recently did the rounds on Facebook. It featured a man and a little girl with blood smeared on their faces, with the accompanying text saying that they were making India secular by playing Holi with the blood of a cow. Boom’s research found that the photo of that of people from Egypt. It had nothing to do with India or cows.

The other kind of fake news relates to food, health and wellness, and counters scientific research. Boom recently looked at a viral video claiming the presence of plastic in rice. They helped prove that while grains may be adulterated, there was no evidence of plastic impurities in the grains.

While the truth may be obvious to the team (and even many readers), much of Jacob’s efforts go into checking and cross-checking the stories verified by his team of three journalists. “We will face a huge credibility hit if our fact-checking is proved wrong, so we have to be extra cautious always,” says Jacob.

Other hoaxes get priority when they’ve been shared by someone well-known. “Politicians often make unsubstantiated claims and state random figures, which readers lap up,” says Jacob. “We do all the background research and then contact the person who has made the claim. Sometimes, they are apologetic, other times they are offended, but thankfully we have got no major threats so far.”

What they’ve got are trolls who don’t like hearing they were wrong. Jacob recalls how a few weeks ago,a user tweeted to his 47,000 followers a video that seemed to show an IS terrorist being taken down by a sniper. The video went viral. Boom traced the footage back to the AP archives and showed it to be a recording of a Venezuela hostage situation from 1998.

The user took down the video as soon as he heard from Boom, but his followers bristled. “They pulled out old tweets of mine and started targeting me personally,” says Jacob, while laughing it off.

The explosion of news outlets and easy accessibility of digital news has made the circulating of fake news easy. People will believe in anything, because no one knows what a genuine source for news is. “Sadly, while 230 million people have WhatsApp, they do not always have access to newspapers to verify what was sent to them,” explains Ethiraj. “What also comes as a surprise to us is how politicians and powerful public figures cite numbers or share pictures which are clearly fake.”

—Report suspicious images, videos to Boom at its helpline number 7700906111

PEOPLE ARE GULLIBLE. ONE POST IS ENOUGH TO CAUSE COMMUNAL HATRED: PANKAJ JAIN, FOUNDER, SMHOAXSLAYER

Mumbai’s Pankaj Jain, 39, is a businessman by day and a hoax slayer by night. He was fed up of being bombarded by inane, fake news through family and friends’ WhatsApp groups. In August 2015, he created a Facebook page called Social Media Hoax Slayer.

“I’m the guy who has long debates about the veracity of stories at family functions and gatherings with friends,” he says. “I soon realised that people were gullible and one message was enough to cause communal hatred. That’s when I decided I needed to reach out to a larger number of people.”

By October, he had also launched a website, smhoaxslayer.com. His Facebook page now has 56,000 followers and his Twitter account, 12,000.

“I spend a few hours updating the website after work every day,” says Jain. “It’s the constant requests on chat and WhatsApp from people asking me to verify information that get really difficult to manage single-handed.”

His system of cross-checking information usually involves a thorough Google search. He has become good at spotting Photoshop modifications.

“The first step is always to reverse-Google search an image. Then I look for signs of tampering,” he says.

For example, he says, a recent viral picture showed political activist and proud teetotaller Hardik Patel sitting beside a bottle and glass of alcohol. “It was clear that they had been added to the picture, because they had no shadow,” he says.

In other cases, he relies on government reports and statistics. And sometimes, just common sense.

Recently, actor and politician Paresh Rawal shared a fake story on Twitter about former President APJ Abdul Kalam saying Pakistan had tried to get him to betray India. “I saw that the text had spelling and grammatical errors and wondered how someone like Paresh Rawal could fall for such an obvious hoax. I pointed it out to him on Twitter,” Jain says.

The downside, Jain says, is that he gets quite a few threats and angry messages; people call him ‘anti-national’. “One guy said he knew where I lived and would ‘take care’ of people like me who spread false news,” says Jain, laughing.

At the same time, he gets a lot of appreciation from people.

“In the end, I know I am just a curious guy who believes in statistics and proof,” he says, “and wants others to do the same.”