They say there is no such thing as a free lunch. Well, it’s not completely true – one can get a free meal here or there, but you do not always know the agenda of the organization that put up the food stalls. And so it is with the internet. It’s a free lunch of information but it is hard to know who is feeding you and which food is artificial (and how to avoid obesity). It’s natural that we tend to prefer unpaid sources of news, but with the tremendous proliferation of free information came the degradation of its quality, the overflow of data and views, and a growing risk of falling prey to false information — fake news. The free lunch scheme also corrupted some of the cooks as some journalists started to just share news found on the internet rather than research their own. Finally, social media, in a way, made everybody a journalist – which is good in terms of the democratization of information and opinions, but makes it even easier for fake news to spread.
When state institutions are unable to follow social changes, groups of vigilantes often appear. A new such group has now emerged: the fake news slayers.
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 of false information. For instance, a news portal called The Quint has started a section called Webqoof that debunks fake news (it’s a pun in Hindi, as bewquf means “stupid”). Yet, I must admit I like the grassroots, citizen-driven anti-fake news websites more. Some of the leading ones 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.
Based on these examples, how does one fight fake news?
The first method is to very carefully scrutinize the material. This seems like an obvious thing to do but it’s easier said than done. SMHS recently pointed out that a hailstorm that had reportedly hit a highway in India turned out to have happened in Turkey instead. The car license plates and right-hand driving in the photo revealed that the videos could not have been taken in India. On another occasion SMHS and BFC analyzed a photo that supposedly showed a counterfeit Indian rupee factory in Bangladesh. Yet, enlarging the blurry images revealed that the notes carried the words Bhartiya Children Bank or “Indian Children Bank”) on them and their stated value was “50 coupon” and “200 coupon” and not “50 rupees” or “200 rupees.” On another occasion a few TV channels had claimed that Indian forces had taken over a post called Kirpan from the Pakistani army in the disputed Kashmir region, but, as Alt News pointed out, Kirpan was already an Indian post.
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 is found worldwide and could even lead to real social strife, particularly when some people falsify sensitive images showing riots, victims, or any kind of violence. 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 epic.
The fake news slayers have to be particularly good at using reverse image search engines, such as TinEye or those available through Google. A reverse image search enables the searcher to find when the image had been used before – if it had – and, obviously, finding earlier sources makes it possible to compare the images and find the adulterations. Pratik Sinha of Alt News reveals that he does the same with videos by breaking them into frames and then putting 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.
The “good” news is that fake news is not a preserve of any particular group. The photo of the astronaut on a wall of the sacred building “has been floating around for years, with different caption, text,” explained the Social Media Hoax Slayer. “[A] few Christians claimed it to be on [a] church, Muslims on [a] mosque, Hindus on [a] temple.” The work of fake news vigilantes shows that fabricated information may come from – or be shared by – people of various views and communities.
Reverse image searching also helps to counter the doctors of doctored images. Photographs are not just being stolen – they are also being morphed or altered. A clever combination of two historical photographs created the image of the members of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu nationalist organization, saluting before the British queen. It is also perplexing to see how, for years, the same image or video (for example one showing riots) had been used to wrongly represent events and places in various parts of the world, making the work of false news busters neverending.
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, helps in uncovering the agenda behind the news (if any). In times of infowars, some of the profiles peddling fake news are fake as well. Yet, browsing the profiles will not solve the problem – after all, fake profiles may share real news, while real people often share fake news, too. But since many fake news peddlers use the garb of known institutions or famous people (such as silver screen celebrities) to support their claims, contacting such people can often help to uncover false information.
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. Boom FactCheck did exactly that in assessing the validity of a story about a violent abduction in the state of Rajasthan. They contacted the local police to get the real story (the story was, unfortunately, true; but the context and the explanation was different from the one circulating in social media). 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 (Gurgaon, Delhi’s satellite city). While it was widely believed that the attackers came from a fringe, right wing Hindu group called the Shri Rajput Karni Sena (which was staging a protest at that time), many netizens shared the news that the men that 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. A bigger challenge arises when official institutions offer lies or half-truths – but that is another story.
It would seem that in the 21st century debunking some of these fake stories should be easy for nearly everybody. How many of us would believe a bizarre story about a fatwah in Saudi Arabia that allowed hungry men to devour their wives? But let us be frank with ourselves – how many of us do try to check the data and the sources of all the news that floods our screens every day? We often miss a simple mistake or clue, such as a wrong date on a tweet, not to speak of trying to put an image through a reverse image search. The more we read, the less time we have to carefully analyze the information we are being fed. And this is why we need the fake news busters.