By Syed Nazakat and Surabhi Malik
Viral hoaxes about local politicians, false information about medicine and rumors of child kidnapping have always been tough stories for journalists to cover in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populated state.
But some months ago, after witnessing several cases of violence due to such rumors, Meera Devi, a local reporter from a community media outlet called Khabar Lahariya, decided to bring about a change in the heart of India’s Hindi-speaking belt.
Devi lives in one of India’s poorest villages in Uttar Pradesh, but managed to complete her master’s degree in political science. She was one of the first female degree holders from her village.
After 12 years in journalism, Devi was keen to learn more and improve her watchdog reporting. So she started to fact-check and verify pieces of content for her audience.
She became a fact-checker.
Devi was selected out of hundreds of applicants (including senior journalists and media educators) from states all across India to join the Google News Initiative India Training Network – a training program that helps journalists across seven different languages in India hone their fact-checking and verification skills.
After attending the training, Devi became a reference as a fact-checker. Ahead of the 2019 general elections, she launched a video show called “चुनावी बुखार सावधान (“Election Fever, Beware!”) that focused on election-related viral claims, boosting a growing tribe of fact-checkers and fact-checking trainers all over the country.
India’s specific issue with falsehoods
India is an example of how complex and quickly evolving mis/disinformation are, and how little people actually know about the fundamental drivers of the issue.
In a country where literacy rates are low, economic inequality is significant, mainstream media is owned and controlled by few, and internet usage in the country has exceeded half a billion people ‚— for the first time driven mostly by rural internet growth — the challenge to combat the growing tide of misinformation is huge.
According to the recent Microsoft Digital Civility Index, Indians are most likely to encounter misinformation, scoring seven points higher than the global average on this topic.
India’s linguistic diversity makes everything more complicated. There are 122 major languages and 1,599 other languages in the country. Most of falsehoods spreads via WhatsApp and mobile phone messages, because for a majority of Indians, their first point of exposure to the internet is via their phone.
A number of lynchings have been registered in India because of false information. Between January 2017 and July 2018, at least 33 people were killed in mob violence over unfounded suspicions of child-lifting. Most of these incidents took place in small towns or villages, and most of the victims in these violent incidents were innocent.
Fact-checkers and fact-checking sites begin to proliferate
For a long time, fact-checking of social media content was not a priority for many Indian newsrooms. Two year ago, there was only a handful of fact-checking websites such as AltNews, SMHoaxSlayer, BoomLive and Check4spam fighting the sea of online misinformation. Only two of them were signatories of the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN). So it was clear that the scale of efforts to combat the growing misinformation was in sheer contrast to the magnitude of the problem.
The few fact-checkers who were at work were mostly individuals working part-time, or small organizations — with infinite love for facts and truth, but limited staff. Even reputable media organizations in India were falling prey to misinformation, as noted by Kanchan Kaur, Dean of the Indian Institute of Journalism and New Media in Bengaluru, in her research paper on misinformation trends in India.
Editors said they wanted help. They felt their newsrooms weren’t equipped to fight the misinformation menace fully. So Internews and DataLEADS worked together to fill the gap by helping journalists and newsrooms learn more about fact-checking and online verification.
In partnership with BoomLive, Alt News, First Draft and Storyful, and with support from the Google News Initiative, Internews and DataLEADS developed a curriculum with modules for photo and video verification and social media monitoring including India-specific case studies.
In the workshops, 240 selected participants spent five days with experts and not only learned, but also practiced intricate tools and techniques. Following the train-the-trainer model, seven workshops were conducted in seven different languages. These network trainers then trained more journalists in their newsrooms and press clubs, and in their own states. Collectively, they organized over 350 trainings and have helped over 13,500 journalists and journalism students in more than 85 cities learn about these skills. (Read: One year on, Combating Misinformation In India)
A year on, there has been a significant increase in the number of fact-checkers and fact-checking initiatives in India.
Eleven of them (including AFP’s India team) are now IFCN’s verified members, making India the country with the highest number of signatories to the international fact-checkers’ body.
Many leading mainstream media organisations such as the Times of India, Dainik Jagran, Malayala Manorama, India Today and The Hindu have formed dedicated fact-check desks and web sections and are expanding their fact-check teams and operations — most of which are being led by journalists and editors trained by the GNI network. There is an effort to train more and more staff and institutionalize fact-checking in newsrooms. Apart from the initiatives certified by the IFCN, there are at least eight to 10 others that are tirelessly trying to unmask the truth behind viral content found online.
“As one of the country’s largest media groups, it became our responsibility to take steps to combat the increasing tide of misinformation. Vishvasnews was created for our readers to help them navigate the maze of misinformation. We owe this to them. It was the need of the hour,” said Rajesh Upadhyay, one of our trainers and editor-in-chief of Vishvasnews, a Hindi fact-checking website launched by the Dainik Jagran group. His team has produced more than 1,000 fact-checking stories and also ran media literacy campaigns in nine cities.
The network is also equipping a new generation of Indian journalists, by working with universities — teaching the future generation of journalism on how to debunk and fact-check.
The battle, however, is far from over.
Syed Nazakat is the founder and editor of DataLEADS. Surabhi Malik is a program director at Internews.
(Banner photo: Meera Devi of Khabar Lahariya with her colleague in India as they prepare to record a show to debunk election-related viral content. (Courtesy))