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Indian fact-checkers step up fight against 'fake news'

Web startups aim to debunk bogus reports ahead of state and national elections

Boom is being paid by Facebook to monitor the Karnataka election, looking for "fake news" across media platforms. (A screenshot of Boom website)

NEW DELHI -- As the southern Indian state of Karnataka gears up for elections on May 12, a series of false stories about politicians has emerged in local media.

In late April, a report named a list of politicians who would campaign for the state's ruling Congress Party. A few days later, a right-wing website and some regional media reported that officials of the state's income tax department had raided the home of a local minister. The next day, a report that claimed to forecast the election result on the basis of a secret survey by the state's intelligence agency appeared on social media.

All three reports were found by Boom Live, an Indian media startup, to be untrue. Congress had not produced such a list, the tax department said it had raided some contractors but not government officials or ministers, and the intelligence bureau said that neither the survey nor the officer alleged to have signed it existed.

Boom, a Mumbai-based fact-checking service, is being paid by Facebook to monitor the Karnataka election, looking for "fake news" across media platforms, including the social media site's webpages. The tie-up is one of a series established around the world by Facebook in response to concerns about the dissemination of fake news on its platform and the use of data relating to 87 million users by Cambridge Analytica, a British data analysis company.

Boom was founded in 2014 by Govindraj Ethiraj, a journalist who was concerned by the rise of fake news in the U.S. during the 2016 presidential election, won by President Donald Trump. Concerned by the potential for fake news in India, which has 355 million internet users, the second largest national group after China, Ethiraj shifted Boom's focus from features and investigative journalism to fact-checking and identifying fake news.

In March, Boom was certified as a third-party fact-checker by the International Fact-Checking Network, a unit of the Poynter Institute, a U.S. media training institute in St. Petersburg, Florida. Ethiraj, who is a member of IFCN's advisory board, said the institute found Boom's processes credible, non-partisan and devoid of bias.

"For us there's one battle," said Ethiraj: "To militate against everything that goes against fact and data."

Facebook and WhatsApp, the company's encrypted messaging service, each have about 200 million users in India, with 225 million regularly accessing Google's YouTube and close to 30 million using Twitter. Fake news reports can have devastating effects, especially when they relate to religious differences or to allegations of criminal activity.

U.S.-headquartered International Fact-Checking Network has certified that Boom's processes are credible, non-partisan and devoid of bias.

In April, right-wing groups vandalized at least 15 shops owned by Muslim traders in Uttarakhand State after a video surfaced on social media alleging the rape of a 10-year-old Hindu girl by a local Muslim man. In May 2017 seven people were beaten to death by villagers in two incidents in the central state of Jharkhand following unfounded rumors that they were child kidnappers. The allegations spread via WhatsApp.

Such incidents have prompted the government to begin work on a code of conduct to regulate online news. However, mainstream media organizations argue that this is an attempt to muzzle criticism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in the run-up to national elections in 2019.

Boom is the only Indian organization certified by IFCN, but SM Hoax Slayer and Alt News, two other internet startups, also offer fact-checking services. The three startups publish stories challenging fake news reports, including revealing the steps they have taken to determine the authenticity of information, and the resources they have used.

All three fact-checkers are expanding. Boom Live recently added two reporters to its existing four, and Alt News has hired a staffer to review Hindi language news, increasing its staff to five (including two volunteers). However, the startups said they had no expectations of profiting from fact checking.

Boom said that income from its Facebook contract is "not significant for the long run." Boom is largely funded by Ping Digital Broadcast, a startup television service targeted at digital audiences, which focuses on food, fashion and entertainment. Boom also has a tie-up with another media startup called The Quint, which pays a monthly fee to use its content.

Pankaj Jain, the founder of SM Hoax Slayer (SM stands for social media) is a businessman who says he is passionate about dispelling fake news. Jain said he gets close to three dozen queries a day about posts on WhatsApp and other social media, which he then analyzes. Alt News is a registered not-for-profit organization financed by donations. Its analysis is free to media users, and it is applying for IFCN certification.

"Anecdotally, we know that viral fakes have reached millions in countries all over the world," said Alexios Mantzarlis, director of IFCN. In the U.S. alone, about a quarter of the population saw fake news stories during the 2016 election, according to a Poynter study. "That isn't cause for panic, but it does suggest this type of work is necessary," said Mantzarlis.

"We see lots of fact-checking or debunking projects around the world, managed as expressions of civil society," he added. "This can be a powerful form of citizen journalism."

Indian fact-checkers are debunking fake news in local papers and on social media ahead of Karnataka election. (Photo by Megha Bahree)

With several Indian states going to the polls this year and national elections due within a year, the stakes are high. Social media, which is not bound by the journalistic objectives of truth, accuracy and objectivity, are increasingly reaching a wider audience than mainstream media.

"The way Cambridge Analytica scoped out and helped [Trump's U.S.] Republican Party target potential voters, in some ways the same thing has happened here. Every day, communally divisive news is pushed to people," said Ethiraj. "It still amazes me that WhatsApp is such a massive platform, and people have figured out how to use technology to push the views they want."

Cambridge Analytica said on May 2 that it would cease to operate immediately after it came under fire in Europe and the U.S. for allegedly influencing voting decisions by harvesting data that Facebook had collected.

Facebook and Twitter did not respond to queries asking about their efforts to eliminate fake news on their platforms. Google highlighted efforts that the company has announced recently, including introducing a "Breaking News Shelf" on YouTube Home that includes video content from verified news sources after major news events. Google also said it is hiring people to review potentially troubling content.

"We cover a lot of issues related to religion," said Alt News founder, Pratik Sinha. "The very fact that there's so much hatred between communities, that's what is propelling the fake news cycle in India and that's very dangerous."

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