TWO MEN on a bicycle circle a small group of children playing on the street. Twice. One grabs a boy and rides away. It is a video that has triggered panic, fear and violence in many places, leading to at least two deaths in Tamil Nadu. But unlike those swayed by rumours of child kidnappers running loose in their area, 15-year-old Niranjana K and the other students of Class X at a government higher secondary school in Kerala’s Kannur get to see the whole, unedited picture.
As they watch till the end, it becomes clear that it is not a CCTV grab but a public interest advertisement by a Pakistani NGO, made to raise awareness about missing children in Karachi. “I did see the video on my brother’s smartphone. I did not know then it was false or that it was not even shot here,” says Niranjana, a student of the school in Shala.
The flood of lies, misinformation, rumours and hate coursing through popular social media platforms such as WhatsApp and Facebook every day has disrupted the belief in traditional sources of information, often with lethal consequences.
On Friday, a man in Chhattisgarh’s Sarguja was killed by villagers who suspected him of being a child-lifter – the latest victim in a spate of lynchings triggered by the rumour, fuelled and spread on social media for over a year, of prowling gangs of child abductors. The rumours led to several killings in Jharkhand last year, the murder of an autorickshaw driver in Telangana and a man from Rajasthan in Bengaluru last month, and the lynching of two men in an Assam village two weeks ago.
But the Kannur district administration is determined that its schoolchildren learn the right lessons in time, especially with Kerala being rattled by a viral outbreak of rumours after cases of Nipah infection came to light.
Starting this month, teachers in 150 government schools in Kannur will be training students of Classes VIII to XII on how to spot false news and information, the lure of sensational news and the idea of the “filter bubble”.
The programme, called Satyameva Jayate, will try to inculcate the spirit of Article 51 (A) (h) of the Constitution of India, which calls upon citizens “to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform,” said district collector Mir Mohammad Ali.
“Across the country, rumours are leading to violence. It hasn’t happened here. But we want to train children to find out what the reality is, to become curious of what the facts are,” said K V Sumesh, district panchayat president.
Over the last few years, the district administration has dealt with a range of viral false information, from the relatively innocuous to the incendiary. “One of the most common fake news I have to debunk in Kannur is that since it is raining heavily, the collector has declared a holiday. But in 2016, rumours of child kidnappers had led to people from Tamil Nadu, or simply people who looked unfamiliar, to be tied to posts and beaten up,” said Ali.
In 2017, a measles-rubella vaccination campaign in the district also had to contend with viral messages, warning of the vaccine’s harmful effects. “It was sophisticated propaganda. A letter, purportedly by a doctor, warning against the MR vaccine was being sent from phone to phone. Some other message arguing that schools did not have the facilities to store the vaccine. We traced some of the messages to a few jobless youth. They were doing it for the heck of it. Some people just like to watch the world burn,” said Ali.
The rumour-mongering about the Nipah virus — the outbreak was first reported from adjoining Kozhikode district — convinced the collector that someone had to douse the fire. “Children can be taught to be sceptical, and that can have a definite influence on their parents’ behaviour. We have seen that in other programmes too,” said Ali.
“What if you get a message that Bindu Ma’am has slapped a student in Class X?” asks Bindu Madhavan, 47, physics and information technology teacher at GHSS, Shala, one of 150 teachers trained for the programme. “How many of you will forward it?” One hand goes up, tentatively. “But how do you know it is true? Have you asked me?” asks Madhavan of the student.
The one-hour class lays down a protocol on how to deal with fake news: check the source of the information, ask the person who has sent it to you to furnish the source, if he doesn’t know it, ask him to post it with the source. And, for the student who does want to know the facts for herself, the answer, says Madhavan is Google. “But even there, you should not believe anything and everything. Are the main newspapers like The Hindu, The Indian Express, Mathrubhoomi, Malayalam Manorama saying this? Or have you got the information from a website like zigzagnews.com?” she asks.
It also emphasises the consequences of reckless sharing of messages. “Do not just say forwarded as received. Do you know a man in Kannur has been arrested for spreading the fake news that eating chicken can lead one to contract Nipah virus?” she asks.
Madhavan takes her students through a trail of recent misinformation — from the viral news of the death of an actor to the “three-headed snake from Attapady” that nearly all the students had seen. “I was so sure that one was true. But Ma’am showed that it was Photoshopped,” said Niranjana.
After the first phase of the programme is over in three months, the district administration intends to take the message to parent-teacher-association meetings as well.
But some limitations are obvious, say teachers and officials. Not all students have access to smartphones, even their parents’, and Internet access is limited in schools. In the absence of practice and real-time use of the Internet, the classes might turn out to be just another lecture that might be forgotten over time.
“To make sure they don’t, we also give exercises. For instance, in one class, I asked the students to find the statement from Unesco, which declared that ‘Jana Gana Mana’ was the best anthem in the world,” said Ali. That statement, they soon found out, was what they are being trained to spot — fake news.