Breakthrough: Hi Pratik, thank you for agreeing to this interview. With #StandWithMe, we are hoping to talk about online safety and intergenerational dialogue and for this month, we focused on fake news.
Pratik Sinha, founder, Alt News: Thank you.
Breakthrough: Alt News has done a great deal of work around fake news, so without further ado, we’d like to dive right into our first question: What is Alt News and how is it working to fight against fake news?
Pratik Sinha: Alt News started in Feb 2017. The idea came [to us] that there should be a dedicated portal in order to document misinformation. There is a variety of misinformation in the Indian social media ecospace, like random claims on social media (especially the religiously divisive kinds), other kinds of political claims on facts and figures, things that politicians tweet or say on their social media profile, [or] things that mainstream media does.
Also, we observe misleading information shared by [the] mainstream media. Looking at all of this, we first look at the health of the information and do a detailed analysis and document everything. It is done with a scientific approach, so that it’s not [just] about [whether] we are saying that this is true or false. We start from the claim and we show all the research that has gone into the article before drawing any conclusion. For example: if it is an image, we will show the reader how to look at the image using a variety of tools; if its a video, we show how we researched the video. There is a constant endeavour to tell the reader that this is not just a case of true and false, but we actually take you through the journey, so that you can believe what we are saying.
This is the way we build credibility with the users, and also a way to tell the users that these are techniques that you can learn yourself, even if there is no dedicated web portal. In your own capacity, you can do these things to figure out a majority of information that comes through various social media channels, including Whatsapp.
Breakthrough: For our second question, we’d like to ask: is there any direct connection between sexism and fake news?
Pratik: One has to understand that, in most cases, [for] fake news (or as it’s technically called fake information/mal-information) there is an element of politics in it where a political party may benefit from misinformation. One of the motives of fake news is to create a divisive agenda. Another is to target individuals who are the voices of society. I will give you a quick example: Gurmehar Kaur. This happened about a year ago, right after we started Alt News, where we saw how her video went viral and [because] a portion of that video comprised slides, the slides were handpicked and they were circulated without context, to claim certain things which were not what she was claiming. She was attacked relentlessly, including by the political class which included members from the ministry, film stars and cricketers. Then there was a pushback. Even in Alt News, we wrote an article about how people in the position of power saw only a part of it and were very selective about what they were saying.
Right after that, a video went viral [which] showed a woman in a car with her friends, and probably they were shown having a good time, having some drinks etc., and it was claimed that the woman was Gurmehar Kaur. Now the motive here was double fold. One: obviously, in Indian society, it is looked down upon the idea that women can have a good time, can drink and things like that. The motive is to push out a video like that and say that “this is how Gurmehar Kaur is”, and that essentially was the primary motive.
Secondly, there was a case where a woman in Chandigarh was stalked by the son of someone holding political power. Right after this came out, it became a big issue [and] immediately a picture was picked from her Facebook profile which showed her standing with two other guys and [it was] claimed that these were the guys who stalked her and that they were already friends and [therefore] it was not a case of stalking and [that] she is making it all up. In addition, as she happens to an RJ or a DJ, other pictures of her started floating around – essentially trying to attack the fact that she is a woman who possibly could be ‘wayward’ in societal terms and it is not the men who are at fault.
Let us also look at the way how female journalists are attacked. There are so many posts which claim that some or the other female journalist has three husbands. Most of the misinformation that circulates targets both sexes but, when it comes to women, there is a specific kind of targeting where the misinformation tries to paint them as immoral and wayward.
Breakthrough: Connected to the previous point, we have observed how fake profiles use women’s names and photos to spread misinformation. What is your take on that?
Pratik: We have done multiple stories of this kind, where fake profiles have been created using women’s names or photos. I will give you an example, where a person created a complete life history: that her father is in the army, her husband is in the army. [The profile] had a Muslim name, most of these profiles have Muslim names. So they are trying to portray that there are these modern muslim women who support a political party which particularly promotes majoritarian religious politics and ideology. There are basically trying to amplify the idea that women from a particular religion are trying to come out and they have to liberalise themselves and post-liberalization, they are supporting the religious majoritarian ideology.
Similarly, we have observed that they use attractive pictures of actresses to gain a following, because typically a profile with an attractive profile picture of a woman will grab eyeballs, and that is why they usually use such photos. For example, the fake profile of [someone called] Ginni Khan started with the photo of an actress as her profile picture. They were changed to other pictures and the photographs kept rotating. In the case of Rajiya Bano, it was also a picture taken from the internet. The reason why they choose women’s photos is very much to do with social media following and the characterization of these profiles are usually modern women from a religious minority who support the religious majoritarian ideology.
Breakthrough: Do you think the fake news has an impact on gender-based polarisation and reinforcing gender roles other than polarising opinions or beliefs?
Pratik: A similar question was asked of me a while ago, about if there is any similar misinformation regarding LGBTQ people. Actually, there is not much, except for claims that have been floating around for ages such as if you are in a relationship with someone of the same sex, then one has to face several unscientific consequences. But in general, there is not much.
We need to understand that the motive of misinformation is to show a person/ideology/practice in a bad light, to change a positive image into a negative one. In the case of LGBTQ people, it is only a small section of society who recognise, understand and support the decriminalization of homosexuality. When a section of people are already looked down upon, there is no need to create misinformation to further put them in a negative light.
In the same case, there is a lot of misinformation about caste-based reservation. For example, there are fake marksheets flying around of people who get in through reservation, to prove why reservation is bad. So you can easily identify the motive in such situations. In the case of gender-based attacks, we have mostly observed that it revolves around the issue of domestic violence. I have not analysed it deeply due to lack of my legal knowledge, but there are many such Facebook groups and pages or Twitter accounts, which constantly talk about how IPC Section 498A has been ‘misused’ by women to harass their husbands and in-laws and how most of such cases are fake.
Breakthrough: And finally, what are your suggestions regarding countering fake news at the individual level?
Pratik: A lot of people ask me this question about fact checking, but there is no straightforward answer for multiple reasons.
Number one: fact checking needs some amount of training. I am not saying that it is rocket science, but it does need some internet knowledge on how to identify fake news. Recently, Alt News along with Boomlive had trained 40 journalists in a five-day training organised by Google in collaboration with Dataleads. There we showed them how to figure out if an image is fake or if a video is fake, how to look up sources, etc., so it does involve some amount of training.
It’s not something that I can prescribe, as it’s not that straightforward, but having said that, I think what social media users need to always watch out for is content which generates a certain extreme emotion. Especially when it is anger, disgust, hatred or those kinds of extreme emotions, those need to be looked at more carefully and people need to reconsider if they want to share it or not. Typically, the motive of people who write these things and create information is to do exactly that, to abuse your emotion and they know that people will fall for it emotionally and share it and take it forward. That is what makes a lot of such misinformation viral.
Breakthrough: Thank you for your enlightening answers on this very important topic, Pratik! We look forward to more fake news busting from Alt News!