Home >Lounge >Features >Opinion | Time to be a fake news warrior
Consume news from legitimate media organizations and always check the date and source. (Photo: HT)
Consume news from legitimate media organizations and always check the date and source. (Photo: HT)

Opinion | Time to be a fake news warrior

  • News is best consumed from legitimate media organizations
  • It’s often relatively easy to confirm the veracity of a WhatsApp forward

We were halfway through the hand-churned guava and chilli ice cream from Mumbai’s Taj Ice Cream at his airy 22nd-floor apartment in Lower Parel when my banker CEO friend looked at his phone and said: “Something big is happening. The Reserve Bank of India has cancelled leave for all its officers."

Just the day before, a girlfriend who is a history graduate from an elite south Mumbai university had asked me to verify a post on a WhatsApp group about our first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s parents being Muslim.

As you may have guessed, both these pieces of viral news were misinformation. Both the receivers were subject experts and yet got taken in.

My banker friend, a seasoned professional who is not easily fooled, believed the news was accurate until hours later he saw a tweet from CNBC TV18 clarifying that the central bank had issued no such order. I guess his industry is still recovering from the shock of 2016’s sudden demonetization exercise.

My history major friend, who had even made a film on Nehru in college, later clarified she knew the news was fake but wanted help sourcing a counter she could post on the WhatsApp group where it had surfaced.

Industry watchers say there is no let-up in the deluge of fake news or the attempt to spread deliberate misinformation post the 2019 general election; in fact, it may have gotten worse. As more groups and organizations grasp the deep and lasting impact of fake news, this menace will only increase, especially since we, their dependable messengers, continue to enthusiastically forward misinformation that’s designed to excite or anger us. “The goal is that users will use their own social capital to reinforce and give credibility to that original message," says an article, titled “Misinformation Has Created A New World Disorder", in the September issue of Scientific American.

It’s time all of us became fake news warriors and did our bit to stem the flow of lies. The easiest (or toughest) way to do this, of course, is to throw away your smartphone or disengage completely from social media, but read on if you can’t.

As I was writing this, a lawyer friend forwarded a message, supposedly from the National Investigation Agency (NIA). “If you come across any social media post in any group, page, handle or wall containing propaganda, hatred for India or its Army on the issue of Kashmir or any other topic you may report to NIA." The forward helpfully provided a link, a phone number and an official-sounding mail ID.

When I asked her if she was sure this was legitimate, she paused, checked and got back in under a minute: “Fake."

It’s often relatively easy to confirm the veracity of a WhatsApp forward—especially one that seems to be providing helpful information—and that’s something you must train yourself to do before hitting the forward button. Often, simply googling will show you the information has already been fact-checked and discredited by some hard-working soul who has painstakingly explained her methodology.

While anti-Nehru and Islamophobic posts (one WhatsApp forward that did the rounds minutes after the government’s announcement on Article 370 listed the advantages Kashmiris had, including dual citizenship) are a favourite of fake newswallahs, it’s best to maintain a no-forwards rule.

News is best consumed from legitimate media organizations that have built their reputation for reliability over the years and WhatsApp doesn’t meet these criteria. Always check the date and source of the news. Personally, I never forward information from a website I don’t recognize.

India has a slew of fact-checking websites such as Factly, Alt News, Boom, FactChecker and Hoax Slayer, but they can barely keep pace. Every media organization needs to set up an in-house team that debunks fake news.

In a country where reality has always been stranger than fiction and public figures—from well-known film-makers to elected representatives—have often been caught spreading misinformation, how else can you battle the monster that has easy access to all our homes through our smartphones?

Indian scriptures “mentioned the concept of gravity" way before Isaac Newton, Union human resource development minister Ramesh Pokhriyal was quoted as saying last week. Lounge readers will know this information is grossly inaccurate, I hope.

N.K. Sood, former Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) officer and author of the book My Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Foreign Visits & Achievements) according to his Twitter bio (and yes, I verified the book title on Amazon), tweeted a picture of a sprawling building earlier this week with “This is the house of unemployed Ghulam Nabi Azad in Kashmir. See how much loot he has made." Within an hour someone had called him out, posting a screenshot of the same building from Booking.com. It was a popular hotel in Srinagar. This person had used a favourite tool of fact-checkers across the world.

“If I could recommend one skill as a fact-checker that I hope everyone learns, it is how to do a reverse image search," says Karen Rebelo, deputy editor at Boom.

PCMag.com tells you how: “Go to images.google.com, click the camera icon, and either paste in the URL for an image you’ve seen online, upload an image from your hard drive, or drag an image from another window." Voila, you never have to be fooled by a fake image again. For those who want to read more about fake news, Rebelo recommends the website First Draft, which fights misinformation and disinformation through fieldwork, research and education.

At the recent annual shareholders meeting of Reliance Industries, chairman and managing director Mukesh Ambani endorsed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s forecast that India would be a $5 trillion economy in five years and added that it would be double that by 2030. Around the same time, Varun Berry, the managing director of Britannia, said in an earnings call that consumers were thinking twice before buying a 5 packet of biscuits. Both of them can’t be right.

Ask yourself what motivates people to say the things they do. And watch an hour of business news to know which of these two gentlemen is closer to the truth.

Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.

Twitter - @priyaramani

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