By Karishma Mehrotra
Facebook will work with Mumbai-based fact-checking organization BOOMLive in a pilot effort to combat online misinformation in the run-up to the Karnataka elections, to be held on May 12.
“All platforms are trying different things, including algorithms,” BOOMLive head Govindraj Ethiraj said. “Now, it’s clear that you can’t use just technology to fight it. You need human intervention, [of which] we are one.”
After the social media giant’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg said his company will do everything it can to “maintain the integrity of elections” in countries such as India during a US Congressional Hearings regarding the recent Cambridge Analytica controversy, the tie-up marks a beginning to Facebook’s publicized effort to tackle information manipulation in Indian elections.
Facebook approached BOOMLive — as well as fact-checkers at Alt News and SM Hoax Slayer — in January, asking them to apply additional resources to fact checking content in Karnataka. AltNews founder Pratik Sinha stated that his organization could not join because it did not have the necessary certification by the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) for the project, but is hopeful that AltNews will receive the certification soon. BOOMLive — certified by the IFCN — has now assigned people to the “limited partnership,” Ethiraj said.
In a blog post, the California social media company stated that BOOM will check the facts and rate the accuracy of English news stories flagged on Facebook, similar to initiatives the company is deploying in Mexico, Philippines, and other nations. Facebook will demote content deemed false and feature the fact-checker’s content as a Related Article underneath the debunked article. In addition, the company will send notifications to profiles that have shared the article and remove the monetization capabilities of repeated offenders.
“Once a story is rated as false, we have been able to reduce its distribution by 80 per cent,” Facebook’s blog post stated, “and thereby, improve accuracy of information on Facebook and reduce misinformation.”
Responsibility in the misinformation ecosystem continues to be a hotly-contested debate centered on arguments about the companies’ identities as platform or publisher, technology company or media company. While some acknowledged this as a potentially positive step by Facebook in India, especially as a testing ground for upcoming national elections next year, they expressed frustration that it has taken the company this long to respond to the country’s cultural context.
“The issue is that they should have taken cognizant of this issue long, long ago,” Sinha, who runs Alt News, said. “This is already becoming a menace that is so difficult to handle. That is a grudge I have … [In India,] they have to treat these issues in a more urgent and more proactively.” Sinha said he now has more access to report issues to Facebook, while before his complaints were often ignored.
Still, some questioned the substance of this effort, calling for substantial structural changes such as hires for in-house journalists and local fact-checkers. Others also wondered about any parallel efforts in Facebook-owned WhatsApp, where the bulk of the problem in India resides.
“While the effort is commendable, I’m not sure how much of it is actually going to be genuine, because if you had genuine intentions in the beginning, you wouldn’t have come to this stage,” Congress Social Media Head Divya Spandana said. She said that the company needs to bring politically-neutral people into Facebook India, instead of outsourcing the fact-checking process and focusing only on profits.
Many on all sides of the political spectrum questioned BOOMLive’s capacity to tackle misinformation in regional languages, where they say the problem is most accentuated.
Ethiraj said that the organization, which has at least one current Kannada speaker and another one expected to join the 6-person team, will also informally work with local Kannada and English newspapers in the state to spot potential misinformation worthy of debunking.
“I question the credibility of their verification process … BOOM’s challenge in Karnataka is going to be language,” said Tejasvi Surya, the general secretary of the BJP youth wing who overlooks BJP’s digital communications for the Karnataka elections. “There may be social media content [that] may not be of interest to local or regional media to pick up and on that grounds BOOMLive may not show interest. But that news may have created an impact.”
Surya cautioned that this effort should not curtail freedom of speech, and Amit Malviya, who is in charge of Information and Technology for the BJP, said that, this is “censorship by stealth.”
Kanchan Kaur, from Bangalore’s Indian Institute of Journalism & New Media, investigated BOOMLive for around three months to assess their values of transparency and nonpartisanship for the IFCN certification.
In BOOMLive’s IFCN assessment sheet, the organization wrote:“We fact-check claims using the same standard for every fact check. We do not concentrate our fact-checking on any one side. We follow the same process for every fact check and let the evidence dictate our conclusions. We do not advocate or take policy positions on the issues we fact-check.”
After Facebook announced a similar partnership in the Philippines, the government stated that the company’s choice of partners were biased against the country’s president Rodrigo Duterte.
Sinha says the claim of bias will inevitably be thrown at fact-checkers because of the nature of the job. Stating that he and his organization are “opposed to right-wing politics,” he added that because fact-checkers focus on viral content by people in power, it may create the impression that they are only fact-checking one side.
“Though the other side is catching up, the right wing has much more fake news going on in their circles than others,” he said. “You may think that fact-checkers are biased but that is just not the case.”
“The right-wingers blaming fact checkers is a joke,” Y B Srivatsa, head of digital for the Indian National Congress in Karnataka, said. “They themselves are fake news disseminators. Their ecosystem does not want efforts to be taken to curtail fake news.”
Almost all sides agree, however, that the issue of misinformation is an urgent matter in India.
“India is the only place where people are dying because of fake news,” Ethiraj said. “The manifestation of false information in India is far more dangerous than anywhere else. The way it’s exploding in India is quite different than elsewhere. That’s worrying.”