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COMBATTING POST-TRUTHS, FAKE & FALSE NEWS

Post-truth represents a situation when facts take a backseat and, emotional appeals and personal beliefs begin shaping public opinion. Post-truth politics (also called post-factual politics and post-reality politics) is defined as a political culture in which debate is framed largely by emotional appeals, and by the repeated assertion of talking points while ignoring factual rebuttals. Post-truth differs from the traditional contesting and falsifying of truth by relegating truth to be a concern of secondary importance. In 2016, 'post-truth' was chosen as the Oxford Dictionaries' Word of the Year, subject to the Brexit referendum and the US presidential election.

In 2015, media and politics scholar Jayson Harsin coined the term 'Regime of Post-Truth' covering many aspects of post-truth politics. He argues that a convergent set of developments have created the conditions of a post-truth society: the political communication informed by cognitive science, which aims at managing perceptions and beliefs of segmented populations through techniques like micro-targeting which include rumours and falsehoods; the fragmentation of modern and a more centralised media; the attention economy marked by information overload, user-generated content and fewer trusted authorities to distinguish between truth and lies, accurate and inaccurate; the algorithms which govern what appears on social media and search engine rankings, based on what users want and not on what is factual; and, the news media which has been marred by plagiarism, hoaxes, propaganda and changing news values.

With regard to fake and false news, there is a conceptual error here. When we cite fake news, it is presumed that there is an original piece of news which is being faked. However, it is largely about false news, news that does not exist or perhaps exists in a totally different form.

The digital culture allows anybody with a computer and internet access to post their opinions which may be legitimised through echo-chambers. Content may be judged based on how many views a post gets, creating an atmosphere based on clickbait that appeals to emotion. Content, false or post-truths, which get more views, is continually filtered around different internet circles, regardless of its legitimacy. The internet allows people to choose where they procure their information from, allowing them to reinforce their own opinions.

In the present era of post-truth politics in India, cow smugglers are lynched, every Hindu-Muslim marriage is love jihad, becoming a Hindu is Ghar Wapsi, anyone questioning the efficacy of an army act is considered an anti-national, slogans of freedom from poverty are considered to be secession calls and the likes, Priyanka Chopra meeting Rohingyas as a humanitarian cause is vilified and she is shown in a burqa, Sushma Swaraj taking a perfectly right step on the issue of an inter-faith couple's passport issue is viciously attacked online.

Tackling propaganda

Globally, in the Western world, rumour cascades are usually investigated through six independent fact-checking organisations (snopes.com, politifact.com, factcheck.org, truthorfiction.com, hoax-slayer.com, and urbanlegends.about.com) by parsing the title, body, and verdict (true, false, or mixed) of each rumour. Investigations are then reported on the websites.

Both technology companies and governments have undertaken efforts to tackle the challenge of 'post-truth politics'. In an article for the journal Global Policy, Prof Nayef Al-Rodhan suggested four particular responses:

Improve the technological tools for fact-checking.

Greater involvement and visibility for scientists and the scientific community.

Stronger government action. The most important challenge here is to ensure that such state-led efforts are not used as a tool for censorship.

Securitising fake news.

Psychological solutions include the so-called fake news 'vaccine'.

India, one of the biggest internet markets in the world, has its share of troubles with fake news; but, Indian society has also birthed important initiatives to tackle the issue. For instance, The Quint has started a section called Webqoof that debunks fake news. Some of the leading grassroots citizens driven anti false-news initiatives include: (1) Boom FactCheck (BFC), established by Govindraj Ethiraj; (2) Social Media Hoax Slayer (SMHS), started and run by Pankaj Jain; (3) Pratik Sinha's Altnews.com and (4) check4spam.com initiated by Shammas Oliyath and Bal Krishn Birla.

With the news of two Indian soldiers allegedly beheaded by Pakistan, several thousand WhatsApp groups came alive. A video purportedly showing the beheading, one by a chainsaw and another knifed in the throat while singing Vande Mataram, went viral. A week later, it turned out that the video was shot in 2011 and the men were Spanish drug dealers. It was exposed by Mumbai-based businessman Pankaj Jain who runs SM Hoax Slayer.

In 2015, for instance, the police said WhatsApp messages had led to the lynching of a man in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, and four beatings in nearby Gandhinagar. Mohammad Akhlaq was murdered by a mob in Uttar Pradesh the same year after villagers said they had seen pictures on WhatsApp proving that he had slaughtered a cow. Forensic reports later proved that the meat was not of a cow's. WhatsApp messages have led to the lynching of more than 30 Indians in the last three months across India, largely on baseless rumours of child-lifting, found untrue in all cases.

Experts say fake or false news falls in two categories – so-called news articles and videos published by various websites, Twitter handles, Facebook pages and YouTube channels; and the other, WhatsApp forwards that go viral.

But how do these hoax-slayers dig out the lies? While software tools are used to trace videos on YouTube, keywords are reverse googled to find the original context. Pratik Sinha of Altnews.com explains, "Sometimes, I break a video into frames and then search for the original. It can take an hour or a whole day."

Data scientist Rishabh Srivastava says fake news in India has a deeper concern since it is primarily spread through WhatsApp. Data analytics can show us the ethnicity and gender profile of those forwarding a certain piece of news, helping us determine its falsity; but the nature of WhatsApp encryption makes it difficult to counter, he adds.

One of the most common techniques of the fake news industry is to take images out of context. Fake news with stolen and doctored images are found worldwide and could even lead to real social strife. In India, some of the most out-of-the-blue cases of images taken out of their original context include a story claiming that an old Hindu temple carried images of modern technology – such as an astronaut – or that researchers unearthed the 80-foot-long skeleton of Ghatotkacha, a giant described in the Mahabharata.

The fake news slayers have to be particularly good at using reverse image search engines, such as TinEye. A reverse image search enables the searcher to locate when the image had been used before – if it had – and, obviously, finding earlier sources makes it possible to compare the images and identify the adulterations. Pratik Sinha reveals thow he breaks videos into frames and then puts these stills in the reverse image search. As revealed on SMHS, the image of the astronaut on the 'temple' turned out to originate from the New Cathedral in Salamanca. The astronaut and other modern touches were added to that church during the 1992 restoration. The skeleton of a 'giant' was, in reality, a sculpture by an Italian artist.

Reverse image searching also helps counter the doctors of doctored images. Photographs are not just stolen – they are also morphed or altered. A clever combination of two historical photographs created the image of members of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh saluting before the British Queen.

The hoax-slayers also refer to verified accounts on social media such as Twitter or Facebook. This method may have its limitations: many times, well-known people such as politicians or journalists share fake news and doctored images accidentally. Yet, looking at the social media user profiles, while not necessarily helpful in judging the credibility of the news, assists in uncovering the agenda behind the news.

Going beyond the web by contacting official institutions to verify a story also assisted a number of cases. For example, Ethiraj and Jacob of Boom FactCheck recommend contacting the local police when the news clearly relates to a smaller locality. Boom FactCheck did exactly that in assessing the validity of a story about a violent abduction in Rajasthan. The importance of verifying a story with the authorities was recently confirmed when a school bus was attacked by goons in the city of Gurugram. While it was widely believed that the attackers came from a fringe, right-wing Hindu group called the Shri Rajput Karni Sena, many netizens shared the news that the men pelting stones at the school bus were Muslims. The Gurugram police, however, denied that any followers of Islam were arrested in connection to the event.

As dystopian as it may seem, the fake news problem in India is very real. In all, seven people lost their lives in two separate incidents in Jharkhand, in a fury based on falsified social media information. A couple of months after the Jharkhand incident, amidst a communal flare-up in the state of West Bengal, a BJP leader, Vijeta Malik, shared a screenshot from a local feature film showing a woman being molested by Muslims. Multiple videos were circulated on WhatsApp allegedly showing Indian Muslims celebrating the victory of Pakistan. All except one of those videos was genuine; it was from Indian-administered Kashmir, as one of the exposes finds.

The only driving force in fake news is the existing, strongly-held bias among people. What this means is that, often, social and mainstream media feed off one another to grab eyeballs. However, the larger issue is one of media literacy and the fight against fake news still needs to be led by mainstream legacy media. People segment organisations into those they trust and those that they believe are for entertainment. There is a higher onus on those that they trust. This could be as simple as breaking down an article and educating readers. It can be as basic as distinguishing an opinion piece from a news piece and breaking down articles and identifying things like sources, facts and analyses.

Finally, it is the protracted efforts of the civil aociety, assisted by a movement for Media Literacy through academia and alternative media that can, to an extent, combat the menace of false, fake, post-truth news and trolling.

Ujjwal K Chowdhury

Ujjwal K Chowdhury

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