The disinformation playbook: A government that wants to fact check the fact-checkers

The amended IT Rules are the most updated version of attempt to influence information flow

The media is supposed to fact check the government. Now the government wants the power to fact check the fact-checkers. How much more brazen can we get?

Exhibit 1: Amit Shah, 2018 rally in Rajasthan: (translated) “We are capable of delivering any message we want to the public, whether sweet or sour, true or fake. We can do this work only because we have 32 lakh people in our WhatsApp groups”.

Exhibit 2. J P Nadda, 2023 rally in Karnataka: “No other Prime Minister in the history of India has been as great as Modi ji. He stopped the Russia-Ukraine War to evacuate 22,500 students from there back to India”. This claim, made earlier by others too, had already been debunked, not by any foreign agency, but India’s spokesperson from the Ministry of External Affairs.

When the Home Minister of the country, and the president of the ruling party have a track record like this, the Union government’s amendments to the Information Technology Rules notified last week, demand closer inspection. The Union government has appointed itself as a “fact-checking unit”! In what seems to be a glaring oversight, it has failed to define the fundamentals such as “fake”, “false” and “misleading”.

Fact-checking as a business: With around 500 million WhatsApp users, and 300 million Facebook users, India can claim to be the world’s largest fact-checking space. Eleven organisations are certified by the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) in India. These include stand-alone fact-checking platforms and multiple news organisations that have in-house fact-checking platforms. With the absence of a defined standard operating procedure, IFCN has become the single point of authority. Also, all funds are funnelled through them. This often means they unilaterally decide who gets to be a verified fact-checker.

To an extent, fact-checking has now become a business. An organisation does “x” number of fact-checks and gets paid, corresponding to the number of fact-checks that they do. It’s about the quantity, there’s no one to check the quality. In this environment, even the most trivial claims are fact-checked to meet monthly billing targets.

Youth in metro cities spend an average of two hours and upwards every day accessing content on their mobile phones. Extrapolate this number across a country with a population of 1.4 billion. Where will this content come from? Content creators have realised that the more provocative the content (irrespective of facts) the more views, and the more money they will make. While this technically invites more fact-checkers to the space, in the absence of a defined standard for the quality of fact-checking, the output suffers.

The role of Big-Tech: Equally damning is the stand by companies like Meta (formerly Facebook) refusing to fact-check politicians. Founder Mark Zuckerberg has gone on record multiple times to state Facebook’s unwillingness to fact-check politicians as they are already “over scrutinised”. Sitting in San Francisco, their myopic views are far removed from the socio-political dynamics of countries like India.

Since Facebook, as a policy, does not fact check politicians, fact-checking partners do not see any utility in doing the same. The reason is simple: No one is going to pay for these fact-checks. It is common knowledge that Facebook’s fact-checking partners don’t often fact check content created by the BJP. Repeat offenders like the BJP’s IT cell and its troll army have earned themselves quite a reputation.

If the government truly wanted to solve this (mis)information crisis, it might have been a good idea to look for benchmarks. Alt News, established in 2017, has swiftly set standards in fact-checking.

In the fight against disinformation, the root cause of the problem is the lack of credible media content and literacy. Producing fact-checks is a significant but short-term solution. The challenge is to make general users acquire the basic skills to identify malicious information and curb its dissemination.

Nexus to create narratives: There have been multiple instances where innocent people have been targeted on the basis of outlandish rumours spread on social media; from being suspected as child kidnappers, and being blamed for spreading Covid, to accusations of eating beef, Muslims in India are at the receiving end of fake news narratives every single day of the year. I spoke to Alt News co-founder Pratik Sinha who was convinced that “narratives are formed through a nexus between mainstream and social media. Such narratives often lead to economic exclusion, unlawful arrest, and hate crimes”.

Just busting fake news isn’t enough. It is time to take this war on disinformation to another level. Who better to start with than school students? Realising such an initiative would be smothered in Gujarat, Alt News recently shifted its base from Ahmedabad to Kolkata to upskill school students at a systemic level. In the long term, the only way to navigate this powerful and toxic ecosystem is to raise awareness among our youth.

Spreading disinformation to gain political mileage is a classic move from the BJP playbook. The amended IT Rules are the most updated version of attempting to influence information flow.

[This article appeared in The Indian Express | Friday, April 14, 2023]