Most of these government-run anti-fake news units, however, do not have the scale, nor pack enough social media reach to make an impact.

Most of these government run anti fake news units however do not have the scale nor pack enough social media reach to make an impact
Delve Fake News Thursday, September 03, 2020 - 18:56

In April,when fake news and misinformation regarding rising COVID-19 cases flooded the internet and messaging platforms, Manavi Atri a lawyer by profession associated with Campaign Against Hate Speech wrote several complaints to the fact-checking division run by Press Information Bureau, “We had sent them eight emails highlighting various instances of fake news and misinformation on Tablighi jamaat being spread over social media and especially by a few broadcast media. We received five responses from them asking us to contact News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA) instead,” says Manavi.

“Apart from the ineffective fact-checking by PIB at the national level, the option we were redirected to was the National Cybercrime Reporting Portal,” says Manavi. Several complaints were also raised with the fact-checking unit of the Karnataka government, “But there was no response,” she adds.

Though fake news and misinformation over social media has become a chronic problem in India, the response to it from the Union and State governments alike have been dismal. The Centre took an initiative to create a portal only in April after the Supreme Court of India took notice of the COVID-19 related fake news and misinformation. The Centre would, in turn, ask the states to create their own portals. Some did, over Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp while others tied up with fact-checking portals.

A look at how these anti-fact-checking portals run by five southern states shows a lack of consistency in the quality and type of fake news and misinformation being countered. Most do not have the scale, nor have enough social media reach to make any meaningful impact. The way forward is a community-based approach to combating fake news point out policy experts.

On April 4, the BJP Member of Parliament from Udupi in an interview to Suvarna TV referred to the Delhi Tablighi Jamaat event as "Corona Jihad". The MP alleged that patients with a travel history to the event undergoing treatment at Belgaum were intentionally spreading the disease.

A senior bureaucrat with the Karnataka government who did not wish to be identified told TNM, “When politicians from the ruling party itself are spreading misinformation what action can we bureaucrats take? The efforts taken by the Karnataka government is not enough to stem the tide of fake news. The efforts taken so far are simply not enough.”

But it’s not just the communal stuff, fake news is of many kinds. When a tsunami of fake news flooded social media during March-April, the Karnataka government roped in a volunteer group of ‘corona warriors’ training them to bust fake news. The debunked fake news was channelled through Facebook pages run by the Information and Public Relations Department (IPRD) and the Karnataka State Police.

In April, the Karnataka State Police also came up with a dedicated website run by the state police in association with Check4Spam, a Bengaluru-based non-profit that helps fight fake news and misinformation. The website began functioning in April, at first debunking COVID-19 related fake news that is aimed at creating panic.

The Bengaluru riots on August 12 began over a social media post by Naveen, a nephew of Congress MLA R Akhanda Srinivas Murthy, who allegedly posted a derogatory message against Islam. The riots left three people dead in the police firing; mobs also set two police stations on fire.

In the aftermath of the Bengaluru riots, the state police took an effort to debunk communal posts- however till now they have debunked just three instances of fake news. Apart from the frequency of fake news being debunked is low — the articles don't show up on searches and this division of the police also has no social media presence. A look at the website shows that the division has debunked two fake stories in August and four in July- of which one was a story on Bahrain and another one on Maharashtra.

Telangana’s effort

The Telangana government has set up a website - Fact Check Telangana tying up with the fact-checker website Factly to combat fake news. A team of just two persons scan social media to identify fake news and misinformation, mostly related to COVID-19 and those that are communal in nature. The team, like in Karnataka, coordinates with the IPRD and the state police.

“We escalate to the police if it is a communal post or has the potential to cause a law and order problem,” says Konatham Dileep, Director, Digital Media, Information Technology, Electronics and Communications Department. When asked if the present set up is enough to dispel the tide of fake news and misinformation, the official said, “We have to scale it up, we hope to get funding so as to develop the division and increase our capacity to combat the tide,” he adds.

Telangana also actively keeps track of ‘politically active persons who are habitual offenders’ through the anti-fake news team and the Cyber Crime police. Though Telangana police are quick to arrest people who abuse or even criticise Chief Minister K Chadrasekhar Rao, the fact checking initiative does not seem to be robust and largely restricts itself to news about coronavirus.

Fake news and Lynching

Mohammad Shubhan from Hyderabad operates a news platform over Facebook. He claims to be a reporter with over 25 years of experience in regional dailies. In the second week of August, the Hyderabad police booked him for allegedly spreading fake news, for the second time.

“I had only shared a report about the Bengaluru riots,” says Shubhan whose Facebook page ‘Reporter Shubhan’ has over 2.5 lakh followers. The Hyderabad Cyber Crime police told TNM that the Facebook post was ‘sensational’ in nature and since the complaint has been taken down. In 2017, a 52-year-old crossdresser was lynched to death in Hyderabad under the Chandrayangutta police station limits. The police had booked Shubhan at the time for allegedly spreading fake news that led to the lynching. Shubhan was arrested and spent 17 days in jail and now awaits trial. It is unclear what fake news was shared by Shuban with respect to the Bengaluru riots.

Speaking to TNM, Cyber Crime police superintendent KVM Prasad said, “We took action based on complaints, the posts were sensational in nature.”

Much before the wave of fake news on COVID-19 pandemic, the southern states saw several instances of lynching between 2017 and 2018 caused due to fake news on child abductions. The deaths did not work as a wake up call for south Indian states, apart from earnest efforts by a few civil servants to combat fake news, there was little action (except in Kerala). The real-life consequences were largely ignored until the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Among the southern states, Telangana recorded four instances where eight persons were lynched over fake news on child abductors on the prowl in 2018. The rest of the southern states together reported 28 instances of mob lynchings that year.

According to an analysis by India Spend, from 40 cases reported in the media, 45 persons were lynched to death across nine Indian states between 2014 and 2018.

Kerala 

Kerala woke up to mass disinformation and fake news in December 2016 when the child abduction related forwards started doing the rounds on social media. The state saw two instances of mobs attacking persons on suspicion of child abductors once in 2016 and the second in 2018.

Mir Mohammad Ali, the then Kannur collector, speaking at a webinar organised by Boom, a fact-checking portal, recalled how his department, for the first time ever, had to issue a clarification against such messages in 2017.

“We noticed audio and video clips doing the rounds claiming child abduction gangs on the prowl. This was the first time we came across misinformation creating some level of mass panic. We did not know what to do at that time. We checked with the local police, there were no such gangs on the prowl, there were no reports of kidnapping either. This was the first time we put out a public clarification,” he shared.

Later, in October 2017, health officials noticed three districts lagging behind in the Measles-Rubella (MR) vaccination drive. The department was targeting 75 lakh children in a span of one month, however, only 44,30,854 lakh children or 59% got vaccinated as against the planned 100%. Three districts — Malappuram, Kozhikode and Kannur — fared poorly. It was then that officials zeroed in on a strong anti-vaccination misinformation campaign over social media at work.

“It was the parents who were standing as a wall between the doctors and children. We started calling meetings to talk to these parents, but the parents were more trusting of social media than doctors,” said Mir. The district administration then approached the children directly through schools. “The children surprisingly repeated the WhatsApp and Facebook propaganda, that vaccines are not effective, that the young girls will not be able to have kids — these are children who don't even have constant access to social media,” he adds.

The district administration went on to train 150 school teachers, helping them learn how to identify fake news using critical thinking. These skills were then explained to the children. “We trained 150 teachers to go talk to the children, to explain to them how to identify fake news. We broke it down for them: how to react to these messages by questioning the source, on how social media business models work and how they impact attention spans, on how click baits work, and helped them understand the concept of filter bubbles where social media sites want you to stay longer,” the civil servant says in the webinar.

Mir, apart from other duties, also heads the Fact Check Division under the Information Public Relations Department. The Fact Check Division has a Facebook account with 17,532 followers and a Twitter account with 377 followers. They busts all kinds of fake news, from health-related misinformation to fact-checking TV news reports on a daily basis. However, the Facebook account has been dormant since August 17 and the Twitter account since August 15. The Kerala police too debunk fake news and use humour to do it.

Read: In this WhatsApp obsessed Telangana dist, cops teach locals how to tackle fake news

While Kerala banked on community-based approach to tackling fake news, at Telangana’s Jogulamba Gadwal district during 2018, the then Superintendent of Police Rema Rajeshwari relied on the local village administration to weed out fake news. The officer trained police officers on the dangers of misinformation and ensured that these officers were added to local WhatsApp groups where the village sarpanch was the admin. The police officers helped flag fake news in the group when posted by someone. The officer also adopted awareness drives using folksingers, to make the message culturally appealing, reported The Quint. This was an individual effort by the officer, and the state formed it's anti -fake news division only two years later.

Tamil Nadu

Tamil Nadu depends on WhatsApp as a means to combat fake news. The Tamil Nadu police launched a WhatsApp number (9498111191) in February 2020 to form a community to combat fake news. People can type JOIN and start receiving the broadcast messages dispelling fake news and providing information. The state does not have a dedicated unit for combating fake news.

Once you send in a text message ‘JOIN’, the whatsapp admin sends you an invite to join one of the several whatsapp groups created to dispel fake news and misinformation. This reporter joined the group on August 31 and is yet to notice any activity.

Andhra Pradesh 

In 2019 the Andhra Pradesh government came out with a government order (GO 2430) empowering secretaries of government departments to file complaints and take up legal cases against false, baseless and defamatory news reports. The YSRCP led state government's effort was seen as an effort to stifle the press and was challenged in court, but the petition was shot down by the Andhra Pradesh High Court.

In February this year, Andhra Pradesh police launched a WhatsApp helpline — 9071666667 — where people can reach out to verify if a certain news or information received via social media is true or false. The introductory message from the whatsapp helpline encourages users to reach out to the ‘Stay Safe Stay Smart’ portal which is operated by the Cyber Crime CID division.

However, the portal claims it only accepts complaints related to crimes carried out against women and children online. The portal accepts complaints on sexual assault on women and children, porography and general cybercrimes.

Accountability from social media platforms

The efforts by states, however, make little or no impact without a real-world social outreach and clear policy framework from the Centre, points out Torsha Sarkar, policy officer with the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS) in Bengaluru.

“There are no guidelines from the central government yet on how states should deal with fake news,” she adds. Torsha calls attention to the medium through which the fake news and misinformation spreads.

“The only intervention, as of now, has been in the form of an advisory,” points out Torsha. In March, an advisory was issued to all social media platforms, asking them to “take immediate action to disable/remove” (misinformation on Covid-19) hosted on their platforms on a priority basis by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY).

Social media companies act as intermediaries and thus, are not liable for any illegal content posted by third parties under Section 79 of the Information Technology Act, 2011. The proposed amendments to bring accountability on the social media platforms by making them voluntarily monitor and take down unlawful content — the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines (Amendment) Rules 2018 — is yet to reach parliament.

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