Big fight: combating fake news

In April, the Narendra Modi government overruled an executive order issued a day earlier by its own Information and Broadcasting ministry that sought to penalise accredited journalists if they published fake news. The I&B order sought to amend the Guidelines for Accreditation of Journalists. The journalists went up in arms against the order and called it a direct attack on the freedom of the press, forcing the government to step back. However, there is a distinct possibility of the government re-introducing the measure in some form or the other.

The most worrying factor for media rights advocates is that several countries in Asia —Philippines, Thailand, Burma, Singapore and Malaysia — are promoting new legislations or expanding existing regulations ostensibly to make publishing fake news an offence. The fear is, though, that rather than focusing on false stories published on social media, authoritarian leaders are seeking to use the new laws to target legitimate news outlets that are critical of them.

In a seminal study on false and true news in these countries, Soroush Vosoughi, Deb Roy and Sinan Aral, investigated the issue through six independent fact-checking organisations (snopes.com, politifact.com, factcheck.org, truthorfiction.com, hoax-slayer.com, and urbanlegends.about.com) by parsing the title, body, and verdict (true, false, or mixed) of each rumour investigation reported on their websites and automatically collecting the cascades corresponding to those rumours on Twitter.

Falsehood was found to diffuse significantly farther, faster, deeper and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information. The effects were more pronounced for false political news than for false news about terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends or financial information.

Unfortunately, although the amount of false news online is clearly increasing, the scientific understanding of how and why false news spreads is currently based on ad hoc rather than large-scale systematic analyses.

Nonetheless, both technology companies and governments have started to make efforts to tackle the challenge of false news. In an article in the journal Global Policy, Prof. Nayef Al-Rodhan suggested four particular responses: improve the technological tools for fact-checking; greater involvement and visibility for scientists and the scientific community; stronger government action – but the most important challenge would be to ensure that such state-led efforts are not used as a tool for censorship; and securitising fake news. Psychological solutions to the problem include the so-called ‘fake news vaccine’.

False news in India

India, one of the biggest internet markets in the world, has its share of troubles with fake news, but Indian society has also given birth to important initiatives to tackle the issue. For instance, The Quint has started a section called Webquf that debunks fake news. Some of the leading grassroots citizen-driven anti false-news initiatives today are: (1) Boom FactCheck (BFC), established by Govindraj Ethiraj; (2) Social Media Hoax Slayer (SMHS), started and run by Pankaj Jain; (3) Pratik Sinha’s Alt News; and (4) check4spam.com initiated by Shammas Oliyath and Bal Krishn Birla.

Experts say fake or false news falls into two categories — the so-called news articles and videos published by various websites, Twitter handles, Facebook pages and YouTube channels; and the other, WhatsApp forwards that go viral. Boom’s sister organisation, factchecker.in, also counters ‘news’ or public statements that may be fake.

How do these hoax-slayers dig out the lies? While software tools are used to trace videos on YouTube, key words are reverse googled to find the original context. Data scientist Rishabh Srivastava says fake news in India is of deeper concern since it is primarily spread through WhatsApp. Data analytics can show us the ethnicity and gender profile of those forwarding a certain piece of news that help us determine whether it is false or not, but the nature of WhatsApp encryption makes it difficult to counter it, he adds.

Going beyond the web and contacting official institutions to verify a story also helped in a number of cases. For example, Ethiraj and Jacob of Boom FactCheck recommend contacting local police when the news clearly relates to a small locality.

Myth-busters

Google reverse image search is favoured by all of the Indian myth-busters. It allows you to upload an image online and then search for where it may have appeared.

TinEye also allows readers to check if images have been manipulated. The free video-to-jpg converter transforms video into images that can then be searched separately.

InVid has developed a browser application that allows people to add video links into it. It then provides detailed analysis about the video in question.

Finally, it is the protracted efforts of civil society, assisted by a movement for ‘media literacy’ through academia and alternative media that can, to an extent, combat the menace of false, fake and post-truth news and trolling .

(The writer is School Head, School of Media, Pearl Academy, Delhi and Mumbai)

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Big fight: combating fake news

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