August 3

Fake news in India is the highest in the world. Why?


Riti Sinha

Fake News in India or abroad creates the same challenges. Whether it be the presidential elections in distant US, and 2019 Lok Sabha elections in India, social media is now used as a tool in fighting all elections. While the 2016 US elections were embroiled in controversy for using the services of Cambridge Analytica to mine data of FB users, elections back home were touted as the first ones in this country to be fought on social media.

We’re in this together

As of 2020, 50% of India’s close to 1.33 billion population, i.e. 650 million people, have access to Internet, of which 448 million use social media. India is also the largest user base for Facebook, WhatsApp, and YouTube. Also, the internet is not an “urban” commodity anymore -- 2 in 3 searches emanate from outside the metros, and local language searches have increased ten-fold.

With that kind of penetration, India is one of the biggest markets for social media companies. Couple that with the cheapest mobile data in the world, digital illiteracy, and it is a sure recipe for disaster…one we are served every other day.

Let’s not go too far back in time. Recently, the Centre and the main Opposition, the Congress, were involved in a back and forth over an alleged toolkit. While the Centre alleged it had unearthed Congress’ vicious plans to defame it, the latter claimed their original document was doctored. Adding insult to injury, Twitter went ahead and marked the document the BJP had shared, purportedly as that of the Congress, as “manipulated”.

A few days before that, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal faced flak from political rivals for claiming there was a Singapore variant of Covid which was infecting children, seeking a ban on flights to and from the island country. The claim so outraged our South Asian neighbour that Singapore threatened to invoke their Fake News Act against Kejriwal.

These instances have been mentioned here only to show that fake news in India is so pervasive that even our political leadership is not left untouched by it. A survey by Microsoft points out that in 2019, a massive 64% Indians said they had seen fake news online against the global average of 57%.

What is fake news?

Fake news has so permeated our daily lives that we fail to see it from fact. A February 2021 study of fake news in India breaks it down for us to make it easy to understand. Fake news could be misinformation, or disinformation.

Misinformation is unintentional false information emanating from knowledge gap whereas disinformation is false information deliberately meant to mislead people. Google News Initiative adds another category, that of mal-information, which is incorrect information spread with the intent of causing harm to an individual or a community.

While we can assume that the Delhi CM inadvertently spread misinformation; 2020, the year that saw most of India under lockdown, was also witness to many fake “news” that even mainstream media fell prey to, and happily reported.

In April 2020, when the world was still trying to wrap its head around Covid-19, disinformation targeting Muslims spiked after many people, who attended Tablighi Jamaat, a religious gathering in Delhi, tested positive for the virus. This is just one example of the onslaught of fake news, especially during the initial months of the pandemic in 2020.

Such fake news prompted the World Health Organisation director general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to say, “We are not just fighting an epidemic, we are fighting an infodemic.”

Why is it a big deal?

Fake news can cause polarisation; it can mislead people on important issues – as the deluge of fake news during the pandemic did. A doctor's video on WhatsApp claimed that a nebulizer can be a substitute for an Oxygen Concentrator. Such false information can actually cost lives (he later retracted and apologized).

Fake news can harden attitudes and stereotypes about people or groups; in extreme cases, it can also spark riots or lead to death, like in the multiple cases of lynching across India over the suspicion of child-lifting.

Fake news also prevents people from believing correct information - there is a trust deficit towards news in general. This onslaught of fake news is increasingly making people wary of all the information coming to them. We can also not discount our personal biases that are likely to guide how we perceive a particular piece of news, fake or otherwise.

Fake news and social media

In India, the most fake news-prone social media platforms are Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and WhatsApp. While there isn’t any data available on the frequency of fake news appearing on each of these, one study did reveal that, there were just two certified instances of fake news in the third week of January 2020, but the number rose to 60 by the first week of April.

WhatsApp is the most popular app in the country with 340 million users. With a service that promises end-to-end encryption, meaning even WhatsApp doesn’t know who all you send your ‘Good Morning’ message to, keeping a tab on the originator of a particular fake news is next to impossible. The Centre has recently introduced new IT rules and regulations which are meant to ensure digital security. How that curbs the spread of fake news is yet to be seen.

Who creates fake news?

Going back to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections in India, let’s see how fake news was created, and used, to influence the voter. IT cells of political parties went in an overdrive. Fake news was used to deceive. It was manufactured, allegedly by IT cells, to influence voters. Parties targeted political icons; Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi found mention in multiple rallies.

Apart from targeting rivals, it was the time to highlight the work done by the incumbent party leaders and Chief Ministers. Internet became the easiest source of eye-catching photos which were tweaked to appear like projects completed by the government. There was the case of the Railway Minister Piyush Goyal sharing a video of the "Train 18" - except that the video was run at 2X its actual speed, making the train look faster than it actually was. Right - wing publications make fake-news claims about the main opposition party as well. 

In the run-up to 2019 elections, fake content on social media reached its peak with the appearance of one Congress lawmaker Anil Upadhyay. Media houses pointed out later that the man did not even exist.

But it wasn’t just IT cells that can be held responsible for creating fake news. As per a research by the University of Oxford on fake news during the 2019 elections, consumers felt news media was also responsible for spreading propaganda, something they pass off as “paid news”. It threw up some alarming numbers – 36% of respondents said they believe most of the news coming their way, irrespective of the medium; and 34% said they believed news on social media.

Unfortunately, media houses have also lost their credibility. What dented their image somewhat was the 2018 sting operation by Cobrapost which claimed that some of the biggest media houses in the country were open to passing off propaganda as news, for a price. The houses allegedly exposed in the operation included Times Group, Hindustan Times Group, India Today group, and the Zee group.

What plagues India

The answer lies in our digital illiteracy. We have cheap Internet, but we lack the wherewithal to understand our responsibility. It is like handing out free chocolates to children. How many of them will say no? Most of us quickly click on the “I agree” button on any and every site without actually reading their terms and conditions. Digital literacy of a population as large, and diverse, as ours is not happening anytime soon.

"People get cheap internet-based tech on their smartphones, but they don't have the necessary education on how to assess the veracity of claims made in the messages," says Rajneil Kamath, a publisher at the Indian fact-checking portal NewscheckerIn, in a DW report.

A 2018 BBC report pointed out that the coverage of fake news in the Indian media over the last three odd years had grown by nearly 200%. It also points out that it is impossible for researchers to investigate audience behaviour within encrypted private networks (e.g; Facebook, WhatsApp). As a result, the picture we have about how people share information, especially ‘fake news’, is from the ‘outside’, so to speak.

The answer to this problem, lies in regulation in the short term, and education in the long term.

Regulation becomes a difficult proposition because political parties themselves – our lawmakers – are seen by many as biased creators of fake news.

Education is also equally difficult. An average Indian internet user cannot distinguish fake from fact. They lack the basic digital literacy and freely share unverified information on Social Media.

In fact, a research in Bihar showed that educating people about fake news can actually backfire with the public holding more dearly on to their beliefs than learning to let go. The research during last year’s assembly elections revealed that despite training, supporters of a particular political party got worse at distinguishing between real and fake news whereas the other set of participants, who supported another party, improved a little. So, the research concluded that there’s a backfire effect where training makes us stubborn. It also revealed that many of the people are not even aware of the concept of fake news.

Archana Kumari, assistant professor at Central University of Jammu, Department of Mass Comm and New Media, enumerates several other reasons for the spread of fake news in India.

“Democratisation in publishing tools has diluted its value even as there is a diminishing trust in mainstream media,” she says. She also says that newsrooms are facing challenges with staff crunch, and negligible investment in training. Even their verification processes are outdated, and out of sync with the latest technology, she says, explaining how even media outlets sometimes fall for fake news.  Kumari says people may have multiple reasons for creating or sharing fabricated, manipulated, and misleading content. “For parody, to provoke – because they are passionate about a particular subject, for partisanship, profit, political influence, or for propaganda. Fake news is not just about profit. Here, in India, we see it is much more nuanced and complex,” she says.

Fact-checking of fake news in India

Another reason for the spread of fake news in India could be that though there are fact-check organisations, they cannot keep up with the fake news onslaught. India has about a handful of factchecking organisations: Alt News, BOOM, NewscheckerIn, are some of the leading firms engaged in the task of verifying news for us. Of these, Alt News and BOOM are certified by IFCN, the International Fact-checking Network, which is a unit of US-based Poynter Institute and brings together fact-checkers across the globe. Even Press Information Bureau (PIB), the “nodal agency of the Government of India to disseminate information to the print and electronic media on government policies, programmes, initiatives and achievements”, does fact-check. It has a dedicated Twitter handle and webpage where it has regularly been checking trending news for its veracity.

Apart from these, Google also launched initiatives last year to address the Covid-induced infodemic. For one, there is Fact and Fit, a collaborative initiative of DataLeads with Boom, supported by Google News Initiative to beat medical misinformation in India.

Google also started a trend to monitor online searches related to Covid, and started Question Hub to address people’s queries relating to the pandemic. It regularly conducts workshops to educate journalists, and to create awareness among public.

What can we do?

Like charity, education begins at home. First, we should educate ourselves. We need to realise that the small gadget in our hand, be it a smartphone, or a tablet, empowers us. But it is a double-edged sword. While it can be used to learn new skills, communicate better with the world, it can also be used as a weapon to spread hatred, our personal agendas, and disharmony.

To that end, Google conducts fact-check workshops across the globe. The sessions teach students, journalists, and even common citizens to be able to differentiate between fake news and facts. Archana Kumari says the Google News Initiative India Training network supports journalists and media educators across India in the fight against misinformation. Led by DataLeads, it has trained 25,000+ journalists, media educators, fact-checkers, and journalism students in more than 10 languages across India, benefitting hundreds of newsrooms and universities.

Fake news in India is a much bigger problem than we perceive. An experiment on fact-checking fake news in India says peer-to-peer corrections are effective in comparison to no correction at all. Social media platforms have kept us connected, especially during the pandemic, when actually meeting each other became impossible. However, as far as debunking fake news goes, it begins us with. To use Covid parlance, we can break the chain by not forwarding a piece of dubious news.


Laws regarding fake news in India

As far as laws in the country are concerned, India allows free publication of news under Article 19 of the Constitution which guarantees freedom of speech. However, there are some provisions under the Indian Penal Code (IPC), the Information Technology Act (IT Act), and the Disaster Management Act (DMA) which can be invoked against the spread of fake news. These are:

Section 66D of IT Act: For cheating by using computer or communication device. It attracts imprisonment of up to three years, and a fine of up to Rs 1 lakh.

Section 54 of the DMA: For spreading a false alarm or warning about a disaster or its magnitude, thus causing alarm. It attracts a sentence of up to a year or fine.

Section 505(1) of IPC: For making, publishing, or circulating any report or rumour that may cause alarm. It attracts up to three years of jail or fine or both.

Section 153 of IPC: For making a statement or doing anything that provokes someone else to cause rioting. It attracts jail term up to a year, or fine, or both.

Section 499 and 500 of IPC: For using words, texts, or images, intending to harm, or knowing or having reason to believe that it will harm, the reputation of an individual. It attracts a jail term of up to two years, a fine, or both.]

Apart from the above, people affected by fake news can reach out to the following:

News Broadcasters Association (NBA) which represents private television news and current affairs broadcasters.

Broadcasting Content Complaint Council (BCCC) which deals with complaints relating to fake news, material inciting violence, communal hatred, abuse, on TV.

Press Council of India can also be approached for warning newspapers, news agencies, editor or journalists in case of violation of journalistic ethics.

Riti Sinha

About the author

Ms. Sinha is a journalist who lives in Gurugram with her two teenage children. In her free time, she paints, writes, and reads psychological thrillers (not necessarily in that order).


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