A ‘photo-shopped’ picture of the prime minister’s mother riding an auto-rickshaw has created a furore in the media and among the opposition. Unfortunately, the Indian media almost goes unchecked in circulating such mischief frequently.
Western researchers have developed organised efforts not just to teach the methods of identifying fake news and their sources but also to understand the ‘ecology’ of the consumers of news. Fake news goes viral in the social media because certain groups or political organisations want such news to thrive. Certain social situations make these examples of fake news believable, at least for sometime till the truth is revealed. Researchers have developed ‘generative adversarial network’ (GAN) - a type of machine-learning algorithm - that challenged the original image- “The adversarial software, knowing what the real world looked like, provided meaning and boundaries for its generative kin.” (The Economist, July 1, 2017).
In the Indian context, researchers are yet to be so well versed with the software to detect fake news, but they are working in their own way to tackle the problem. A website, AltNews.in, has been doing a commendable job of trying to identify the sources of fake news and analyse how they have been created. As is said of Pratik Sinha, the founder of AltNews,“Some of the techniques he uses are to break up videos into frames and then search for those images online, until he can zero in on the original sources”.
Sometimes a simple web search describing the actions in the video will often take a vigilant user to a news story about the video”. In his blog, Sinha, describes how “an epidemic of fake videos (has) hit the Indian social media ecosystem” and gives several examples of how he has painstakingly detected them. His own political ‘slant’ is obvious; but his efforts to detect fake news are worth noting. The main aim of circulating such fake videos, says Sinha, is to portray an individual, a community, a political entity, or people of a particular ethnicity in a bad light.
In Europe, consortiums across professional rivalries get their stories checked. CrossCheck is one such consortium where participants include the BBC, Channel 4, Le Monde, Agence France-Presse, and BuzzFeed get their stories stamped ‘true’ or ‘false’. Some of the stories are marked ‘caution’ if they are found to be suspect even after cross checking. A German organisation Correct!v is an investigative journalism venture which has a four member team dedicated to busting fake news.
There is no such collaborative venture yet in India among the mainstream media houses, even though the ‘epidemic’ of fake news in India demands such a move. The only effort so far seems to have come from the individual who set up AltNews.in, with his indigenous ways to identifying fake news. He started debunking fake news from his Facebook page but then went on to create a separate website AltNews.in just for exposing fake news.
Sinha is quite frank with his alignments saying “People can disagree with me on ideological grounds, but they cannot disagree with me on my fact checks”. He thinks his work is vindicated when he adds “I saw even right-wing people sharing my stories where I debunked right wing propaganda”.