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Fake news: How AltNews brigade 'created' journalistic model for fact-checkers

Pratik Sinha: Una incident in the backdrop
Ketan Mundhada, Rohan Saxena, Sai Unmesh*
In August 2016, Pratik Sinha was accompanying his mother, Nirjhari, on a 10-day protest march from Ahmedabad to Una. Earlier, in July 2016, seven Dalits were flogged by a vigilante mob for skinning a dead cow to make leather. Having had previous experience and a reach among the masses from his previous efforts with the website “Truth of Gujarat”, which wrote primarily about fake encounters, Sinha documented the complete 350-km march. 
The entire march was all over the social media, popularized with “#ChaloUna”; within no time, the entire nation caught a glimpse and got aware of the atrocities that had occurred in Una. Sinha, a son of a veteran social activist, Dr Mukul Sinha, was always engrossed in political and social talks over the dinner table. However, it was only this crucible incident in his life in 2016 when he decided to move away from his lucrative software engineering career, and foray into the fact check brigade.
Prior to this, Sinha had spent a large amount of time studying and working abroad in the USA and Vietnam. He specialized in wireless technology, and had worked for various start-ups at different stages in his career. In 2013, he decided to move back to India and started freelancing.
Sinha always had a penchant for doing something good for the masses. On his return in 2013, the roots of activism in his life were sown with the Ishrat Jahan case. He wrote extensively about the case and on different fake encounters on his website, which served as his foray into the media space.

Rise of fake news

In a study carried out by Mckinsey & Co in their Digital India Report (April-2019), data consumption in India more than quadrupled between 2016 to 2017 to almost 1,622 MB per connection per month. Further, majority of the data accessibility and consumption was capitalised towards social media. 
Political parties like Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) had capitalised on these opportunities during previous elections, and over the years, nearly all other parties have joined the bandwagon through publicising sensational claims that are rallied around digitally over all platforms. 
Today, anyone on the internet has the ability to publish anything and everything. More often than not, planned political campaigns have a team working in the back-end that are amplifying rumours through TV and the internet for political gains.
There has been an unprecedented spike in misinformation globally since 2016 when the term gained popularity. In India, fake news usually follows a pattern where such news usually explodes during election campaigns. The problem is only expected to exacerbate as more and more Indians get on the internet.
It might also be important to note that fake news is easily propagating in society today and also has to do with the moral construct of our society. There are a few propaganda outlets operating in the digital media landscape today that continue to enjoy great ratings which serves as a multiplier effect for the spread of fake news. The large consumption of public towards sensational news is only indicative of our poor moral groundings, which is adhered to by politicians according to their needs.

The fight back

While there has been emergence of organisations and communities like in Veles, which housed multiple fake news websites during Trump's presidency campaign in 2016. Fact-checkers around the world have intensified their war against these outlets and the business of fake news.
Campaigns around the world against political propaganda, has pushed organisations like Google, Facebook and Twitter to incorporate structural changes in their organisation to tackle this problem. Besides tech giants, in India, we see the emergence of initiatives like Times Fact Check, India Today Fact Check, etc. that are being encouragingly undertaken by large media companies. We also have independent players like AltNews, Factchecker, etc. that are on a crusade against fake news.
The organisations primarily monitor daily news and social media content, at times crowdsourcing it through their portals online or over Whatsapp. The items that are brought in are flagged based on severity and filtered using either classic journalism techniques - through investigative research by reaching out to the right channels and on-ground staff or through tools - like reverse image search, CCTV footages, etc.

Birth of AltNews

In 2016, post the Una incident, Sinha quit his job and focused on tackling the issue on the rise - Misinformation. Over the years, not only had misinformation grown manifolds, its nature kept changing as well, and it was increasingly becoming more and more malicious and organised. In September 2016, Sinha along with Zubair (owner of the page “Unofficial Subramaniam Swamy”) started brainstorming on what they wanted to do in the social media space. Eventually, within a month or two of operations, they wanted to establish a niche in debunking misinformation. By February 2017, the portal for AltNews was live and has been one of the most famous and leading crusaders against this menace in India ever since.
However, Sinha and Zubair were not the first ones to foray into this space in India. Earlier, inspired by emergence of fact-checking websites in the USA, Govindraj Ethiraj, launched Factchecker just prior to 2014 national elections in India. Ethiraj’s root in journalism existed prior to this venture and he is also credited with the emergence of India’s first data journalism efforts through IndiaSpend.
While foraying into fake news, Ethiraj earlier restricted his efforts towards checking the veracity of statements made by political figures, like current Defence Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman’s claim in 2019 - “We have had no major terrorist attack in this country since 2014 when BJP came to power at the center”.
Soon, Ethiraj realised there is a much bigger dearth of fake news that is going under the radar on social media in the form of videos and images made through specialised software of which the majority of Indians had not even heard of that was being taken at face value by the broader public. Any topic that trends on social media, spreads like wildfire over Facebook, Whatsapp and Twitter in a matter of minutes. That is when he launched Boom, a full fledged app aimed at tackling this issue.
For Sinha and his team at AltNews, the challenge lies in gaining widespread acknowledgement among people regarding the issue. However, he is certain of a better future, but for now, we are far far away from even dealing with the issue. There is a need for widespread reforms in the education and media space to make the general public aware that such a business even exists and is at such a large scale now. Till then, he and his team of 11 are shouting way beyond their weight and slowly waging a war against fake news.

Business of fake news

“If you are a true Indian, then you will like, comment, and share this post!” What was the last time you were questioned on patriotism and pushed to like such posts via a WhatsApp forward or a social media page? Probably every single day! Most of these posts simply constitute fake news with the underlying intention to spread propaganda. And this propaganda spreading parties have a huge economic interest. Some many companies and individuals are working and have been hired by different political parties and different interest groups to spread such fake news and it is a big business out there.
The right-wing political parties had established a very strong foothold on their social media campaigns and were prime runners of fake news. During 2013-14, there was a huge influx of fake news related to the very famous ‘Gujarat model’ and many messages were circulated with photos of the Chinese rapid transit system. 2016 gave this business a different shape altogether. With the launch of Jio and data prices going down, more players started coming into space and propagated fake news. So, let’s try to understand how the business of fake news works.
The business of fake news is thriving a lot on social media. There are groups such as “Sharing is caring” on Facebook where you can buy Facebook pages, groups with significant followers on various propaganda based topics, ranging from politics, Bollywood, religion, and nationalism. You can buy Facebook pages, Instagram pages, and other such social media pages and spread misinformation quickly using such pages.
Apart from such direct selling for likes and views, there are organizations and youth who are engaged in producing misinformation based content on a daily basis. They are hired by the political parties with their agendas. There is a page called ‘Nation with NaMo’ Facebook page and there was a Huffpost article on it as to who runs it along with the kind of content it propagates. There are organizations that are doing this professionally, where they put out a lot of misinformation. Today, the propaganda has been corporatized. 
AltNews depends on the donations and does not advertise on its site to maintain control and independence of the content they publish
Now, it is not just some individuals who run the show. We need to understand that misinformation is basically a kind of information and these organizations bring a lot of information for the propaganda, and part of it is misinformation. Propaganda inherently has characteristics, where these entities say beyond what the actual matter is. Big money is being paid. Additionally, the other aspect is monetization on social media.
Recently, we saw a series of YouTubers putting out videos about Sushant Singh Rajput. That is the form of ‘individual monetization’ where individuals are targeted and parties who create such content- sensational content with a decent amount of misinformation - individually benefit from such tactics. So, today, there is a mix of organizations and individuals who are spreading misinformation.

How media like AltNews function

AltNews functions independently to fact check and provides credible information to the wider audience. The model of their sustainability is through donations and grants right now. AltNews has a grant from the Independent and Public-Spirited Media Foundation (IPSMF). But it's a very small grant at the moment. It's a 30% Grant and 70% donations model that is working for AltNews. They also conduct sessions where they educate about the fake news fiasco. They have a partner in Pune who's working on the tech side, and they are doing a pro bono for AltNews.
The current state of India and our demographic fabric is quite a under question. For business sustainability of News channel, many channels turn to advertisements, who in turn are linked to the Government. So indirectly, the government controls the kind of information that shall go out. That is where the media model suffers at this point in time. Why is the media not able to get us the facts? Why is the media becoming a propaganda arm?
Because there's control on media through the corporate engine in the form of advertisers. For example, ABP News, who once fact-checked the Prime Minister, and the next moment, Patanjali led by Baba Ramdev withdrew all their advertisements. Soon after that, which was in a matter of a few days, two senior editors exited and an anchor was benched at the news channel, post which the advertisements came back. AltNews doesn’t want a model where advertisers control what content they can put out.
They also don't want to depend too much on grants, but they definitely don't want to depend on advertisements. So, they depend on donations, and they haven't scaled up because they believe it is important to survive and make an impact - whatever impact we are making. They are writing a book around fact-checking and are creating a curriculum.
They are focusing more on education as they go forward. They are focusing on tech and are doing multiple things as a small organization as they want to be effective while being small. They don’t want to scale in a way in which advertisers will control them as they believe it would defeat the entire purpose of starting in the first place.

Debunking misinformation

AltNews first monitors misinformation. Disinformation is news that the sender knows is false and still circulates, while misinformation is where the sender is not aware if something is true or false but decides to forward it anyway. In the case of Facebook, AltNews uses a tool called CrowdTangle that tracks how content spreads across the internet.
They use it for monitoring different Facebook pages -- pages that have put out misinformation in the past and have the potential to go viral. Twitter is also being monitored and they have a list of people who tend to tweet misinformation on a regular basis. They identify the posts and start the investigation process and they then analyze the content for misinformation. A lot of people also reach out to AltNews and actively seek their help in identifying fake news via Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp.

Fake news in 21st Century

Fake news essentially propagates false stories by twisting real-life events or creating entirely fictional ones. The most common strata of fake news consist of convincingly crafted fictional stories supported by old, unrelated visual media. For example, the recent farmers' protests in the capital triggered a multitude of fake stories where old videos of vandalism are being shared as the acts of protesting farmers to side-track the protest.
While using unrelated media is easy and effective, there is an even more significant danger of altered media looming upon us. Image and video editing softwares have gotten so better, to the point where one cannot distinguish a real photo from a fake one. Also, advances in deep learning algorithms, a branch of Artificial Intelligence, led to the genesis of totally realistic synthetic media called deep fakes that can fool even a seasoned expert.
At its core, fake news thrives on polarization. The more polarized the society is, the more people look for content that confirms their biases and opinions, forming a vicious loop. A politically, communally, and religion-wise polarized community like India is a perfect breeding ground for fake news. We can observe this as a common theme in phony news stories about minorities resorting to violence, accounts that spew hate towards the affluent and other communities, and posts promoting toxic nationalism by sharing false stories demonizing other countries.

Information literacy

Some of us adept with technology can analyze, understand, and judge the information presented to us through a digital medium. The rest of the population does not have that privilege. There are people in our country that don't even know that a software like Photoshop exists that can morph pictures. This is why incorporating Information literacy into the curriculum and educating the masses about it is essential.
Information literacy is defined as "a set of integrated abilities encompassing the reflective discovery of information, the understanding of how information is produced and valued and the use of information in creating new knowledge and participating ethically in communities of learning" (Association of College & Research Libraries, 2015).
Information literacy should not be confused with other types of literacy. A person can be educated and successful in his career but might not possess the ability to think about the information provided critically. Infusing the concepts of Information literacy to the masses goes a long way in curbing misinformation and fake news.

IT in the school curriculum

While journalistic work is essential and has led to the recognition of the issue, the solution has more to do with the educational sector than the journalism industry. Journalism and education have specific roles that they have to fulfill.
Information literacy workshops for adults exist and usually last around five full days. Creating a curriculum for students is tricky because several levels of understanding have to be defined. It has to start from a much lower level for children to understand, and the content should be made interesting. The topic has to be divided into small bites of readily consumable information as the attention span of children is low. Also, children are not interested in politics. So, the curriculum should revolve around the content that appeals to them.

Significance of AltNews

What AltNews did is that it created a model of fact-checking in a journalistic manner. This model has also been adopted by many in India. There are other fact-checkers, but AltNews is the most recognized at this point in terms of its work and independence. A lot of mainstream media companies just go by readership numbers that drive their Ad revenues. AltNews depends on the donations and does not advertise on its site to maintain control and independence of the content they publish.
The acknowledgment that the issue of fake news exists, that politicians are the source of it, and social media companies are aiding it in itself is a success story. The most crucial steps of solving a problem are acknowledging the problem and characterizing it. For the first time, we are close to characterizing the problem. The problem is much easier to tackle once we understand it and distinguish it. “For the first time, we are close to characterizing the problem of fake news”, says Pratik Sinha, Co-Founder of AltNews. 

Path ahead

Journalism, a blossoming sector that is experiencing rapid growth due to the advent of the internet and smartphones is infested with fake news and has to be tackled immediately to control its effects. Misinformation can have wide-ranging manifestations as it has the potential to create panic during emergencies like Covid and can affect the election process that is central to a democracy.
More organizations need to step up and work in this area. Young people should take charge of educating people about fake news and work towards eliminating it. Also, now that the internet is omnipresent, people should be conscious of the content they post and promote. People should realize that sharing misinformation will tarnish their social image and trust. Many a time, a simple triangulation and verifying news with other news sites will give us insight into the authenticity of the information. 
Also, social media companies must be mandated to have separate tech teams to identify and delete these posts as they have the resources and data to do so. Social media platforms already have systems in place to identify copyright infringement in place. Similar systems can be developed to detect fake news. Work should also be done in Artificial Intelligence and Natural Language Processing (NLP) to automatically detect misinformation and track its origin.
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*Second year students pursuing MBA programme at Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad; hold their bachelor’s degree from IIT, Kharagpur

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