Years before he came to be known for debunking right-wing propaganda on Twitter, fact-checker Mohammed Zubair was a school student in Bengaluru who spent his weekends bowling left-arm pace at the cricket grounds near his home.

Mohammed Zubair
news Profile Saturday, July 02, 2022 - 15:38

One of the deadliest deliveries in the game of cricket is that of a left-arm fast bowler bowling to a right-handed batsman. This is because the angle of the ball naturally takes it away from the right-handed batter.

Years before he came to be known for debunking right-wing propaganda on Twitter, fact-checker Mohammed Zubair was a school student in Bengaluru who spent his weekends bowling left-arm pace at the cricket grounds near his home. His friends do not recall he had any interest in politics or fact-checking, two topics that have now come to define him on the internet. 

Zubair, the co-founder of AltNews, one of India’s reputed fact-checking organisations, was arrested this week over a tweet he made in 2018 referencing the Hindu deity, Hanuman. In the last five years, Zubair and his organisation have not only debunked routine misinformation but also published investigations that showed the link between fake news sites and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

But his towering online presence, where he has over half a million followers on Twitter, belies his unassuming offline persona in which he gave up the comfortable life of a telecoms engineer in Bengaluru to draw attention to the volume of misinformation in the Indian media, which, he quickly realised, was frequently in the form of hate speech targeting religious minorities. 

The eldest among five siblings, Zubair, 40, grew up in Bengaluru’s JC Nagar area. His father sold mangoes to traders at the local marketplace to support their family. “He (Zubair’s father) always told Zubair, ‘You are like the train engine of the family. You have to focus on your studies and set a good example for your siblings,’” Zubair’s cousin tells TNM. 

Zubair largely stuck to his father’s advice, becoming the first one in his family to get a bachelor’s degree, graduating from the reputed MS Ramaiah Engineering College in Bengaluru. “It may surprise people today but he had no interest in politics when he was growing up. He had no idea who our local MLA was,” says a close friend of Zubair’s. “He used to spend all his free time playing cricket in the neighborhood. He was the person in our group who used to call each and every friend to the ground to play,” the friend recalls.

After completing his studies, Zubair worked as a telecoms engineer at reputed companies like Airtel and Cisco in Bengaluru. His longest stint was with Nokia, where he worked for nearly a decade. “I remember he had gone to Finland and Japan for on-site assignments. He loved his tech job and he was leading the typical Bangalore techie life,” his friend says.

Beginnings of fact-checking 

It was in 2014 that Zubair, an avid social media user, first noticed the slew of political pages criticising the then incumbent UPA government on Facebook. In June the same year, he decided to create a page of his own, tongue-in-cheek, on behalf of Subramanian Swamy, a BJP politician whose tweets were hugely popular. “Did you know Mona Lisa was an Indian?” Zubair satirically wrote on the page posting an image of the famous painting edited to include a sari and bindi.

When he was threatened by a legal notice by the politician himself, Zubair merely added the affix ‘unofficial’ and continued posting, quickly amassing over three-and-a-half lakh followers. It was in this period that he came in contact with Pratik Sinha, an Ahmedabad-based software engineer who ran another popular Facebook page and website called ‘Truth of Gujarat’. 

Zubair’s fate was intertwined with that of Pratik Sinha and his mother Nirjhari Sinha, who are the other co-founders of Alt News. Nirjhari and her husband Mukul worked as scientists but they were also human rights activists based in Ahmedabad, the city where Pratik grew up. 

Mukul Sinha lost his job after he became involved in organising workers fighting for their rights at his workplace, the Physical Research Laboratory in Ahmedabad. He subsequently trained as a lawyer and went on to represent victims of the communal riots in Gujarat in 2002. He took on the Narendra Modi government through sustained cross-examination in the Nanavati-Shah Commission which investigated the Godhra train carnage, riots and alleged fake encounters that followed.

Pratik, however, was working as a software engineer in the United States, and only in 2013, when Mukul was diagnosed with cancer that Pratik, then 31, returned to Ahmedabad and stayed back. He learnt about the dangers of misinformation from his parents, examining their work representing the victims of the 2002 riots in detail and publishing them on Truth of Gujarat.

When Pratik first reached out to Zubair, it was to rebuke him for picking up a story from the Truth of Gujarat page without attribution, recalls Nirjhari Sinha, who is now the director of Pravda Media Foundation, the parent company of Alt News. “But soon, they realised how much they had in common,” says Nirjhari. They were both software engineers who maintained popular social media pages while working a full-time job. They were both keen to hold people accountable and equally worried about the amount of misinformation and hate passing off as ‘news’ online.

Co-founding Alt News

In 2016, Zubair traveled to Ahmedabad for work and met the Sinhas, where a conversation that first outlined the idea to start Alt News took place. “We set out to start a fact-checking initiative at a time when such websites did not exist in the Indian media space,” says Nirjhari. 

Pratik was convinced he would leave his software job after attending the ‘Chalo Una’ rally along with his mother when hundreds of protesters walked from Ahmedabad to Una, a distance of over 300 kilometres, agitating against the public flogging of four Dalit cattle skinners by vigilantes. Sinha documented the march and his updates #ChaloUna became popular and trended online, drawing attention to the issue which he felt was ignored by the media.

Although Zubair was yet to join full-time due to family constraints, the Alt News website was launched in February 2017 with the first story debunking a GIF that showed Donald Trump holding up a folder that read “Vote for BJP.” Zubair would join Alt News full-time in September 2018, managing fact-checking assignments as well as drawing attention to misinformation using his growing social media presence. Alt News backs up its fact-check stories with meticulous evidence. For instance, a reverse-image search was all it took them to show that images of a 2015 heatwave were being falsely shared as the victims of the Balakot airstrike.

The funding to pay the salaries of their staff largely came from donations they raised on their website and social media. Alt News grew in popularity over the last five years, relentlessly debunking misinformation like home remedies in the time of COVID-19.

But Zubair and the Sinhas quickly realised that misinformation was not always routine; that there were recurring patterns in the news they were debunking. A significant number of their fact-checks were about hate-speech targeting minorities. “We knew when we began that fake news was not only targeting political leaders but that a lot of it was actually hate speech. We realised there were many unrelated videos shared without context which targeted minorities. For example, a video of someone saying “Pakistan Zindabad” was shared without context. The video may have been from Karachi or Bangladesh but it was presented to be from India,” says Nirjhari. 

Alongside relentlessly fact-checking misinformation, Alt News also investigated the people behind popular websites and their links to political parties. “The problems began when he moved beyond routine fact-checking and found fake news sites that are linked to the ruling party,” Nirjhari says. In May 2017, Alt News published a story uncovering the links between a popular news site and the BJP IT cell. 

Their work, often combative and asking probing questions, prompted scrutiny, mainly from BJP leaders. Zubair was the subject of two cases accusing him of harassment and torture of a minor. This happened after he responded to an abusive tweet with the display picture of the user which featured a girl, perhaps his granddaughter. He had shared a blurred picture of the girl while responding to online abuse, and asked, “Does your cute grand daughter know about your part time job of abusing people on social media? I suggest you to change your profile pic.” Though an FIR was filed against him, the Delhi Police told the High Court in May this year that the tweet made by Zubair “does not constitute any cognizable offence”.

Zubair’s name was included in a morbid video calling for the deaths of several journalists. This video was also shared by BJP leaders. 

In June this year, Zubair was booked for calling Hindutva leaders Bajrang Muni and Yati Narsinghanand ‘hate mongers’. Yati Narsinghanand was earlier booked for hate speech at an event in Delhi. There was also an online campaign to arrest Zubair when a Twitter account called The Hawk Eye flagged Zubair’s satirical post from 2018 asking police to take action for making “fun of gods, religion, culture and scriptures”. The campaign against Zubair intensified following the suspension of BJP spokeswoman Nupur Sharma after her derogatory comments against Prophet Muhammad were highlighted by Zubair. 

Arun Pudur, who describes himself as a tech billionaire, even offered money for anyone willing to start legal action against Zubair and Alt News. Zubair had debunked false claims made by the businessman against Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav.

These online campaigns foreshadowed Zubair’s eventual arrest by the Delhi police on June 27. “We expected this. His (Zubair’s) work exposed many lies and this is what the (Union) government is against. They wanted a lie to remain a lie,” says Nirjhari. 

The co-founders are now supporting Zubair, who has been in police custody for four days. They are also challenging the police for seizing Zubair’s laptop and hard-disk during the investigation. “The tweet is online and it was made from his previous phone. The police picking up his laptop and current phone is facilitating a phishing and roving enquiry against him,” says Nirjhari. “We should make use of his talents to strengthen democracy and not weaken it by targeting him.”

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