Remember that famous 'Deepavali' photo of India from outer space which shows the country spectacularly lit up? The picture faithfully does the rounds every year during the festival. It’s fake.
More recently, a photo of a woman in a hospital went viral during the late TN CM J Jayalalithaa’s hospitalisation. Many media outlets also believed it to be true and picked it up. Turns out it was a picture from EsSalud hospital in Lima, Peru and was taken in 2009.
If you’re active on social media like Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp, you’re probably not alien to viral messages like these. And because of the amount of information available online and the ease of sharing, there’s no dearth of fake information circulating as news.
Enter Shammas Oliyath and Bal Krishn Birla, two men from Bengaluru whose venture, Check4Spam, is doing the digging to debunk fake news.
Log on to the website and you’ll see them debunking all kinds of "news" from requirement for blood for an accident victim, missing cases, execution dates of freedom fighters and even a message which claimed Australia had declared Tamil as their third national language!
Shammas, a software engineer at IBM in Bengaluru, is an active social media user and in early 2015, he wanted to do something to stop people from believing in hoaxes and propaganda being packaged as news. “More than hoaxes doing the rounds, I started getting worried about the truth being lost. Because the fake message has gone viral, people may continue sharing that over the real update,” he says.
Check4Spam.com was set up in February 2015 and in July 2016, Bal Krishn Birla came into the picture. Shammas and Bal Krishn had known each other for 4-5 years through a Facebook group. Shammas told Bal Krishn about Check4Spam and the latter, a serial entrepreneur, came forward to take over the technical aspect of the website.
Photo provided by Shammas Oliyath
Bal Krishn keeps the website up and running and looks after the search engine optimisation. Doing this helps them drive traffic when people look up a message on search engines to check if it’s true.
Shammas says that until now, finding hoaxes to bust has never been a problem. And having set up a WhatsApp number in August 2016 for people to send in the messages for fact-checks, Shammas gets as many as 100 a day. The verification bit is tricky, but Shammas doesn’t have complicated tools at disposal.
It begins with a simple Google search, with the verbatim message. Shammas generally skips the first 5-10 pages of the search results as they tend to be full of the doctored post. Sometimes, he even searches backwards, going to the far end of the search results first. Here, he often finds the original news post that has been manipulated.
Shammas also checks if someone has already debunked the hoax and if he finds them credible enough, he uses it with due credit. “I generally see the sources quoted by such a person. If it's Wikipedia, I check if the Wikipedia citations are relevant. If the person has quoted two or more mainstream or reliable sources like news websites, I take it to be true,” he explains.
Shammas checks the messages during his hour-long lunch break and starts researching. Many of them are repetitive, because multiple people end up sending the same viral message to him. In such cases, he simply sends the existing link to them. He does the uploading in the night, after work.
One of the problems he faced in the initial days was that non-English speaking people would take his debunk, which begins with the tag ‘SPAM’ and then the subject of the message, as a reinforcement of it being true. So, Shammas had to start adding a line or tag in other languages (Kannada, Marathi, Gujarati, Hindi) to ensure that people understood that he was calling it a hoax.
Shammas says that while more and more people are going online, including the elderly, not many know yet how to differentiate between authentic sources and malicious ones. Many of the messages he receives, therefore, are from people in the age group of 50 and above.
And among the many types of messages that he receives, there’s a new one that’s picking up: promotional spams. An example of the same is a message you may have received about an offer to get an iPhone for a price drastically cheaper than its market price by installing a certain app or clicking on a link. The latter is generally a way to steal information from the user’s device. Shammas says that even educated and tech-savvy people end up falling for these.
One of the toughest viral news posts that Shammas had to debunk was about a woman giving birth to 11 babies in one night. The accompanying images showed a woman with what looked like a massive pregnant belly and another one 11 infants in a row surrounded by hospital staff.
While unable to authenticate or debunk the news with a reverse image search, Shammas had to ultimately split the image into two and reverse search them again. Turns out, the lady was in Mexico and had a large ovarian tumour, weighing 132 pounds. And the second picture, with the babies, was taken at an IVF clinic in Surat, Gujarat.
In case of the political viral messages that he receives, Shammas treads carefully, knowing that even media reports can be biased. Recently, following the controversy over the high cost of the Shivaji statue being built in Mumbai, a message claiming that the statue would be able to generate solar power and even track boats in the Arabian Sea was in circulation.
“It’s very believable actually, but if the statue had such benefits, the mainstream media would have picked up on it even before the construction began. Seeing that there were no such reports, I marked it as spam. Following that, many media houses also said it was untrue, after which I was able to use them for reference as well,” Shammas shares.
Two years since Check4Spam first started, Shammas still isn’t able to figure out why people spread wrong or fake news. “I think some of it is just people trying to gain traction for their blogs or video channels by putting sensational stuff. But it’s almost impossible to figure out where the message first started. Some have been doing the rounds since many years ago and just resurface now because of the virality social media offers,” he opines.
Shammas says that Check4Spam does not churn out monetary gains for them as of now, and the revenue they get from ads on the site goes into its operation costs, including promotional posts on Facebook. Currently they have about half a million visitors a month and debunk 3-4 hoaxes a day.