2020 has been a tumultuous year. Global events aside, India has witnessed the intersection of record-high COVID-19 cases, incessant conspiracies surrounding Sushant Singh Rajput’s death, an unprecedented migration crisis and a slumping economy, to name a few. Thriving in the midst of this chaos is ‘WhatsApp University’, a phrase coined to refer to the rampant fake news on a platform that serves 400 million users in the country. Along with an invisible pandemic, India is suffering from a serious ‘infodemic’. With crucial state elections approaching, how can India combat fake news to protect democracy and save lives?
- Sanjay Suri, Europe correspondent, Network18 group (Moderator)
- Lyric Jain, Founder and CEO, Logically
- Saurabh Shukla, Founder and Editor-in-Chief, News Mobile
- Maya Mirchandani, Asst. Professor, Ashoka University; Senior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation
- Kritika Goel, Assistant Editor, The Quint
- Amber Sinha, Executive Director, Centre for Internet and Society
Firstly, the term ‘fake news’ is more problematic than we think because everyday lexicon assumes it is a catchall phrase, popularised in 2016 by President Donald Trump. One of the early topics of discussion in the webinar was the distinction between misinformation and disinformation.
While rumours and propaganda are nothing new, today’s infodemic is unique because technology has amplified the reach of ‘weaponised’ information: content that misleads and/or magnifies existing prejudices. This ‘confirmation bias’ transforms popular social media platforms like WhatsApp, that are barely accountable for the content in circulation, into breeding grounds for mis/disinformation because of higher trust levels among friends and family.
So, who should be responsible for addressing the problem: the public, government or social media platforms? Fact checkers, for instance, rely on whistle-blowers in closed groups and networks to flag malicious information; however, the public should be educated first on how to spot this. This would require coordinated media literacy and regulatory efforts by governments and plaforms. Children, for example, should be taught critical thinking skills at school as a long-term solution to spotting false information. Also, while end-to-end encryption is intended to protect privacy, the question of what happens when such safeguards are exploited to disseminate disinformation needs to be addressed. Essentially, there should be a will to advance existing technological solutions to combat fake news, a desire which needs to be inculcated from the start.
The webinar discussed other solutions for the public to implement include:
- A reverse Google image search to check the veracity of information, especially since most of the misinformation in India appears through multimedia formats.
- Checking the timestamp and punctuation (i.e. are there excessive capitals and punctuations?)
- Vetting the author and website (i.e. are they a known source?)
- Submitting fact checks. AI-driven fact checkers are an excellent tool to support the volume of information that needs to be processed, to give you near instant results.
The panelists concluded by saying the problem of fake news is multifaceted and constantly evolving. Thus, the solutions to combat this phenomenon must be holistic, agile and involve all stakeholders.
Watch the webinar on YouTube here.