A cynical cop stuck in the middle ranks throughout his professional career tells a wide-eyed junior that there are three different worlds — the topmost where Gods rule, the middle where humans build their lives, and the lowest that insects infest. Hathi Ram Chaudhary thus sets the tone for the highly popular Amazon Prime series Paatal Lok by making a comparison between corruption in Delhi and the netherworld and then adding, “Waise toh shaastro me likha hai, par maine WhatsApp pe padha tha.” The Facebook-owned app is where modern myths and morals are made, and forwarded. It is also one of the largest generators of fake news.
Usually, fake news is more than harmless homilies to impress a new recruit. But, sometimes, it can be dangerous and divisive. Take, for example, the mob lynching in Palghar, Maharashtra this April. People started forwarding texts about kidnappers and thieves in the region, panic ensued, three people were killed, and the unfortunate event given a communal colour. To ensure that misinformation is not thus weaponised, fact-checking platforms such as Alt News have become crucial.
Experiments with untruth
Founded by former techies Pratik Sinha and Mohammed Zubair, the start-up has an interesting prequel. Sinha has had a long relationship with fact-checking and activism with a lawyer-father, Mukul Sinha who represented the families of victims of the encounter cases post the 2002 Gujarat riots. In 2013, Pratik and his parents built a non-profit website called Truth of Gujarat (ToG) to shed light on the ground realities of the state, which were not being shown on traditional media channels.
In 2016, Pratik and his mother Nirjhari Sinha participated in, and documented, the Dalit Asmita Yatra. The 10-day rally from Ahmedabad to Una was led by activist Jignesh Mevani because of unrest among the Dalit community in Gujarat. While covering the rally, Sinha noticed that save for one journalist from the Hindustan Times, there was little by way of media coverage.
However, misinformation around the event got ample traction on social media. Even though misinformation is an ancient foe, it became a force to reckon with due to cheap smartphones and the data boom (See: Forward first, verify never). Thus, in February 2017, Alt News was born, with Sinha’s co-founder Zubair, who was behind the popular Facebook page ‘Unofficial Subramanian Swamy’. With more than 700,000 followers, that page also demystified fake news.
Almost immediately after their launch, they made an impact with the debunking of news that fatwas were issued against then Zee TV reporter Rohit Sardana because he asked a maulana to show proof of Allah’s birth place. After Alt News verified that the claims were false, Sardana also confirmed that it was all hogwash. But Sinha found that it was much murkier than a few unsuspecting people sharing a scandalous news article. One of the first websites to carry the fake story belonged to a college student who owned two other similar portals. A few days after the rumour mongering was laid to rest, Sinha learnt that this website was being paid Rs.40,000 a month to post sensationalist and misinformed articles. The incident opened their eyes to the misinformation factory’s workings and strengthened their resolve.
Pratik and Zubair’s strong social media following helped in their pursuit of busting misinformation. Zubair had his Facebook page, while Sinha’s ToG website had grabbed eyeballs. The duo is popular on Twitter, too. Sinha has 280,000+ followers and Zubair has over 136,000. The team of 13 employees (six writers, four in IT and three researchers, excluding the co-founders) scours social media platforms for misinformation, but their inbox and feeds are also full of posts by people who want something to be verified.
Since they cannot always find misinformation peddled on WhatsApp due to its end-to-end encryption policy, Alt News has created a helpline. Their team typically responds in two days to a week’s time. That’s because fact-checking is still mostly done manually by everyone from the Mumbai-based Boom Live to The Quint’s Webqoof.
Rakesh Dubbudu, founder, Factly, says that it might be another five to 10 years before machines can take over. “Right now, we simply don’t have enough content to build and train an AI engine to detect misinformation in India. There’s a lot of content in the West and that helps them build machine learning models,” says Dubbudu. But training a machine to vet content in several languages across regions is going to be a tall task. For instance, in Mumbai alone, an algorithm would have to analyse data shared in Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, Malayalam and more. Alt News does have some technological tricks up its sleeve, though. Once they receive flagged content (all one has to do is tag their account on say Facebook or Twitter), it gets added to their database, where the console ticks off the debunked ones and shows which ones are pending.
Furthermore, the system catalogues every piece of inbound content and links it with the fact-checked story. Next time, if a query matches any catalogued content, the system automatically shares the fact-checked story with the user who flagged the story. This element of automation is already up and running. The goal is to build the repository to an extent that machines can handle a majority of the queries. Next comes API integration with Facebook, Twitter, Telegram, and hopefully, WhatsApp. But technological challenges are the least of the duo’s worries.
Raging against convention
At 142 out of 180 countries, India’s freedom of press ranking isn’t exactly worth writing home about, especially since we fell two rungs lower from 2019. Sinha expresses his chagrin saying, “NY Times, Washington Post go hammer and tongs against Donald Trump, but they don’t face backlash. In India, it’s exactly the opposite.” Hence, it’s no surprise that every other week Twitterati blames the ‘Godi’ media for reporting news that seems establishment-approved. After all, advertisements for media houses comes from corporate India, which needs the goodwill of politicians. Thus, Alt News’ USP lies in the fact that it has no ‘godfather’.
Since inception, Alt News has been trying to figure out a model without the challenge of ‘managing’ an investor. Crucially, Sinha and team want to educate the general public that they need to pay for such a service. “We want the public to contribute to Alt News according to their ability. Sinha says that students often donate as little as Rs.10 saying, “Bhaiyya, abhi paise nahi hai, but please keep doing what you do.” This, he believes, builds a sense of ownership towards honest, clean journalism.
The smallest donation you can make towards Alt News is Rs.9, while among the largest received so far is Rs.300,000, which came from activist Arundhati Roy’s Zindabad Trust. The average donation is about Rs.950/person, and according to their financial statement, this amount has increased from Rs.3.6 million in FY18 to Rs.13.4 million in FY19.
According to Zubair, donations are largely driven by followers on Twitter. The donors from WhatsApp and Facebook are fewer. "We have noticed that much of our donation is driven by our English readers. On the flipside, we derive most of our readership from Hindi readers. Hence, going forward, we want to focus on producing more Hindi content. This way, we may also be able to expand our donor base,” he adds. For now, the donations just about cover their monthly operational expenses of Rs.1 million.
The crowd-funded model is similar to that of the UK’s The Guardian, and India’s Boom Live and The Wire. Boom Live was founded by journalist Govindraj Ethiraj while The Wire was started by Siddharth Varadarajan. And even though players such as BoomLive, Vishwas News, Webqoof, Factly, NewsMobile and FactCrecendo have also partnered with Facebook for an alternate source of revenue, Sinha is not sold on the idea.
“The Government may come after these companies because they function here under the purview of the Indian law,” he says. Facebook has anyway come under fire many times for allowing political entities to mislead voters. “The inability of these platforms to prevent such activities shows that the companies don’t want to get in the bad books of the government,” says Sinha.
So, Sinha is looking at other possible revenue streams, such as training traditional media in fact-checking. In fact, Sinha was one of the chief trainers at the Google News Initiative held in India in 2018. Now, he wants to consolidate his training model by designing courses around understanding misinformation for the K12 curriculum. “How can we be part of the high-school curriculum? That’s the age where prejudices, especially around science and health, haven’t set in. The aim here is to teach students not only to identify misinformation, but also to wade through excess information on Google and social media platforms,” says Sinha. Next, the team has its eyes set on journalism schools; creating a one/two-week module with universities. Partnerships are in the works, but Sinha says it is too early to disclose the universities he will collaborate with.
Pratik and Zubair know that they have an uphill task ahead, especially as more consumers get their hands on smartphones. Alt News is proud that they are the torchbearers in this crucial fight against propaganda. “Today, Times of India, the Dainik Jagran Group and India Today have begun their own fact-checking programmes. Boom Live and Alt News can take some credit for forcing them to take up such an initiative,” Sinha says. The eventual goal is to develop tools — say a Twitter Bot that can check facts for you — and get the tech giants to adopt it.
He believes that if you solve the misinformation problem for one section of the information pile, it is easy to replicate the solution for other media channels. “As a small non-profit entity, we want to develop models that can be replicated, because we can never have the impact that an organisation with resources can,” he says. How Sinha and other independent fact-checkers handle impending technological challenges such as deep-fake videos remains to be seen. For now, they have their hands full battling hate mongering and outright lies that masquerade as ‘news’.