How do you curb fake news in a country as big as India? And that too at a time when so many special interests—read political forces—appear determined to warp popular perceptions of reality? The harsh answer, it would seem, is that you cannot.
When Facebook Inc. acquired WhatsApp in 2014, it had close to 100 million users in India. Five years down the line, as we are in the midst of the world’s biggest elections, there are at least two new Facebook users for every user back then. Such vast numbers now consume fake news, propaganda and misinformation—through other online platforms as well—that many wonder if these polls will pivot on falsehoods.
In the run-up to the hustings, Facebook Inc. had signalled its sensitivity to those concerns and had adopted measures to address them. Today, the social media major’s plan to tackle fake news with the help of seven fact-checking firms in India, going by a Bloomberg report, looks like a feeble attempt to ward off criticism rather than a robust strategy to tackle the issue.
In a blogpost about its preparation for the Indian elections, Facebook also announced new political ad transparency tools that would give people a clear picture of who was aiming advertisements at them. WhatsApp had also unveiled its Checkpoint Tipline feature, by which people could ask for a veracity check of any information received on the platform. According to a Reuters report, WhatsApp was working with a local startup to classify messages sent by users as “true", “false", “misleading" or “disputed". There was a plan to create a database of malicious content that would be analysed.
Predictably, however, an overload of online material appears to have overwhelmed the exercise. Fact-checkers have been cited as expressing exasperation with the volumes they are dealing with. Resources have been stretched thin and professionals on the job are hardly able to keep up with the traffic.
As observers of this dismal scenario have noted, social media apps have too weak an incentive to keep their users better informed. Their business models are built on offering advertisers access to bulk audiences. Whether these users are discerning or naive is of little consequence to the money made by social media companies.
As internet access gets easier and cheaper for Indians, the onslaught of fake news could possibly worsen. Yet, greater public awareness could place renewed pressure on apps to do more. With increasing social movements afoot to contain the damage of mala fide “forwards", the market itself may evolve in a way that makes social media firms invest meaningful sums of money to fight fakes.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) could help here. A trained human eye can catch a piece of fake news or a morphed photograph 9 out of 10 times, but AI might be able to do this perfectly. There are multiple initiatives around the world that are combining AI with visual, audio and language data to create resolute tools which will help combat misinformation, especially a few specific complex aspects of it, such as “deepfake videos"—altered video clips that also leverage AI. So long as truth is still valued by society at large, the authenticity of what’s on our screens needn’t be a lost cause.