At a time when a fake news can travel the world literally at the click of a button, India needs better media literacy and awareness on the phenomena. A panel that had co-founder of Altnews.in, Pratik Sinha; director general of the Indian Institute of Mass Communications, KG Suresh; managing editor of Boom, Jency Jacob; South Asia bureau chief of The Washington Post, Annie Gowen; and contributing editor of Business Standard, Vanita Kohli Khandekar at The Indian Express Thinc on Wednesday, discussed the increasing need for a dedicated “army” of people who could bust fake news, besides the traditional media stepping up to counter such rumours.
Opening the conversation on ‘Uncovering the Truth in the Time of Fake News’, Sinha said that Altnews primarily fact-checked three types of stories: speeches by politicians, certain stories by the mainstream media, and those with communal messages involving Hindu-Muslim binaries.
Such stories, he said, go viral depending on how “provocative” their nature was. But all such stories do feed into the “majoritarian politics that we have in the country today,” he said.
He stressed that while mobile penetration had brought a larger number of sources of information to an increasing number of people in India, especially in the rural parts, they have not been “given a single tool” to check if the information is “true or not.” This, he said, adds to the problem.
Pointing out the increasing “polarisation of media” in the country, Suresh said the rise of propaganda and counter-propaganda is also compounding fake news.
He said the problem is not just outside the industry, but even within. Journalists “have done away with objectivity, accuracy, field work and cross-checking of facts,” he said. “We are not giving news the time it requires.”
Stressing that education and awareness were the “keys” in handling the problem, Suresh said: “We need to go down to the school level, to the college level…in educating younger people about how to identify fake news.”
Boom’s Jacob agreed, and said that it is “perfectly possible” to verify “every bit of news” that is put out.
Talking about how political parties use “copycat tweets,” Jacob said it took some 70 to 80 people to make a topic trend on social media. “And many of the people who promote such tweets are not driven by money, but ideology,” he said.
Comparing the crisis of fake news in India with the west, Gowen said in the western countries people were “digital natives,” with a better understanding of the Internet. So there is more “discernment,” unlike in Asian countries, where many people are able to access the Internet for the first time, she said.
Citing the example of content creators in Macedonia, who produced fake narratives during the American presidential elections, Khandekar said, if fake news did not pay the problem could be mitigated.
The economy of fake news should be “demonetised,” she said, adding that the biggest players of the online advertising game had to be “co-opted.”
Talking about the kind of issues that came up during the American presidential elections, which have been further highlighted in the past few days over Cambridge Analytica’s role in harvesting data about millions of Facebook users, Sinha said India is not “equipped” to handle that kind of situation. Even now, he said, barely 5 per cent of the fake news is “tackled” by fact-checking websites like his (Altnews), while 95 per cent still pass through.
Khandekar also said that platforms, like Facebook and Google, needed to put in more checks and balances, as they are significant players in the game. “Huge amounts” of fake news is “driven by personalisation” and advertising technology, she added. “There is no serendipity in news consumption.”