Prof. Ujjwal K Chowdhury writes on tackling Fake & False News

Tackling Fake News: The South East Asian Way

In a recent turn of events on April 3, the Indian PM Narendra Modi overruled an executive order issued a day earlier that sought to penalize accrediteed journalists for publishing fake news. The said order sought to amend the Guidelines for Accreditation of Journalists. The journalists were up in arms against the order and called it a direct attack on the freedom of expression thereby forcing the government to step back. However, there is a distinct possibility of the government re-introducing the measure in some form or the other.

The most worrying factor for media rights advocates is that several countries in Asia, like Philippines, Thailand, Burma, Singapore and Malaysia, are promoting new legislations or expanding existing regulations to make publishing fake news an offence. The fear is that, rather than focusing on false stories published on social media, authoritarian leaders will use the new laws to target legitimate news outlets that are critical of them.

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 exist in a totally different form.

Soroush Vosoughi, Deb Roy and Sinan Aral in their seminal study on false and true news,

investigated through six independent fact-checking organizations (like 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 investigation reported on their websites and automatically collecting the cascades corresponding to those rumours on Twitter. Falsehood was found to diffuse significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information, and the effects were more pronounced for false political news than for false news about terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends or financial information.

Unfortunately, although the amount of false news online is clearly increasing, the scientific understanding of how and why false news spreads is currently based on ad hoc rather than large-scale systematic analyses.

Tackling False News Based Journalism

Both technology companies and governments have started to make efforts to tackle the challenge of false news. In an article for the journal Global Policy, Prof. Nayef Al-Rodhan suggested four particular responses:

  1. Improve the technological tools for fact checking.
  2. Greater involvement and visibility for scientists and the scientific community.
  3. Stronger government action. The most important challenge here is to ensure that such state-led efforts are not used as a tool for censorship.
  4. Securitizing fake news.

Psychological solutions include the so-called fake news ‘vaccine’.

Combating False News in India

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

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. Boom’s sister organisation, factchecker.in, also counters ‘news’ or public statements that may be fake.

But how do these hoax-slayers dig out the lies? While software tools are used to trace videos on YouTube, key words are reverse googled to find the original context. Data scientist Rishabh Srivastava says fake news in India is of 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 that help us determine whether it is false or not but the nature of WhatsApp encryption makes it difficult to counter it, he adds.

Going beyond the web by contacting official institutions to verify a story also helped in a number of cases. For example, Ethiraj and Jacob of Boom FactCheck recommend contacting local police when the news clearly relates to a smaller locality.

Some Tools Bust Myths

  • Google reverse image search is favoured by all of the Indian myth-busters. It allows you to upload an image online and then search for where it may have appeared.
  • TinEye also allows readers to check if images have been manipulated.
  • The free video to jpg converter transforms video into images that can then be searched separately.
  • InVid has developed a browser application that allows people to add video links into it. It then provides detailed analysis about the video in question.

Finally, it is the protracted efforts of the Civil Society, 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.

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The writer is currently the School Head, School of Media, Pearl Academy, Delhi and Mumbai, and formally the Media Dean of Symbiosis and Amity Universities.

 

 

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