Two authors fight misinformation with fact-checking website

Updated: Apr 21, 2019, 08:24 IST | Jane Borges

Authors of a new book discuss how their fact-checking website is fighting the malicious misinformation network

Representational Image
Representational Image

The day we reach out to Pratik Sinha, founder of the two-year-old fact-checking website Alt News, his team is busy collating data to counter a piece that has gone viral on free messaging apps and social media.

The story, he says, claims that former PM Rajiv Gandhi would always be accompanied by his wife, Sonia Gandhi, during public gatherings. It goes on to incorrectly state that while Rajiv attended 181 rallies in all, Sonia only participated in 180 of these. She missed the last one in Sriperumbudur near Chennai, where he was assassinated in 1991. What it suggests is that the former president of Congress was aware of the tragic fate that was to befall her husband, says Sinha, a software engineer and new-age warrior, fighting the malicious world called fake news.

Sinha and his colleagues, scientist Dr Sumaiya Shaikh and writer Arjun Sidharth, have co-authored a new title, India Misinformed: The True Story (HarperCollins India), where they delve into stories that they debunked, in order to "expose the propaganda machinery".

Pratik Sinha; Dr Sumaiya Shaikh
Pratik Sinha; Dr Sumaiya Shaikh

Misinformation has existed since time immemorial, says Sinha, but the arrival of social media has changed how we receive it. "Back in 2014, the reach of smartphones and mobile data was largely restricted to urban pockets. But fast forward to 2019, what has happened is that the most remote parts of the country now have access to mobile data." And, who doesn't like to be on social media? "But social media has only given impetus for misinformation. Here, morphed images and videos get facilitated with false context. Very often, they are provocative in nature. And social media platforms are designed in such a way, that such provocative material ends up going viral."

Sinha and his team use both, digital tools as well as traditional journalism, which involves connecting with sources and relevant authorities mentioned in the stories, to cross-check facts. It is a lot of work, considering the pool of misinformation available on the World Wide Web. That mainstream media has fallen prey to fake news, devoting considerable print space and air time, is worrying. In the book, the authors discuss how a well-known English news channel did a story based on a fake 'love jihad rate list' that was circulating on social media, which put a price tag on non-Muslim women. "Misinformation in mainstream media has always existed, and it has usually been a business issue," says Sinha. But, with the coming in of online journalism, fact-checking has gone out of the window, he adds.

Dr Shaikh, who is a neuroscientist based out of Sweden, also points to the incredible volume of fake news related to health and science, which Alt News Science has been attempting to challenge. "What I am doing is not giving my opinion, but giving evidence and facts through original research to show how this is not compatible with the outlandish claims."

With the ongoing Lok Sabha elections, the business of fake has only become the order of the day. Fake quotes of global leaders showering praise on PM Narendra Modi or morphed pictures that put him in a spot, and those taking a dig at Rahul Gandhi, have overtaken everyone's timelines. Fake news is closely related to current affairs, says Sinha. He explains why the Pulwama attack and Balakot air strike led to an outburst of false stories from both sides of the border. "The more people are emotionally invested in an issue, the more effective misinformation is."

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