Interview: Pratik Sinha

For awareness programmes, not laws

Print edition : August 17, 2018

Pratik Sinha. Photo: Vijay Soneji

Interview with Pratik Sinha, co-founder of Alt News, a fact-checking website that busts fake news.

Until a few years ago “fake news” was practically unheard of. But today it has become by far one of the most dangerous aspects of the digital platform. From political propaganda to lynching, the spread of misinformation is posing a threat to even the country’s stability.

In September 2017, concerned by an increase in misinformation, Pratik Sinha founded Alt News, a fact-checking website. It has been responsible for busting several fake stories and misinformation, some of them even put out by Central government agencies. For instance, in a Home Ministry report, an image of “floodlighting” along the Spain-Morocco border was passed off as one from the Indian border. Thanks to the Alt News expose, the Home Ministry had to take down the image from its report and apologise for its gaffe.

Alt News has, often at the risk of right-wingers’ wrath, relentlessly combed their websites to expose the lies spewed by them. One instance was when the team exposed those behind, which had been propagating fake news, as right-wing trolls.

Sinha and his team meticulously monitor news and information on social media platforms such as WhatsApp for anything that could have terrible consequences, such as the recent spate of lynching in the country because of fake news. In another Alt News expose, it turned out that a story about Rohingya gangs knocking on people’s doors in the middle of the night in Indore was false.

The need to expose lies, fight for justice and not give in is part of Sinha’s DNA. His father, Mukul Sinha, the well-known labour lawyer and human rights activist, had fought for the victims of the 2002 Gujarat communal pogrom. The Jan Sangharsh Manch, which he founded, is kept alive by Pratik’s mother, Nirjari Sinha, who continues to take up the cause of the marginalised. His own Alt News has been doing path-breaking work at keeping insidious forces in check. In a climate where fake news is causing violence, Sinha believes the state has to take on the issue much more seriously. He spoke to Frontline about the portal’s work. Excerpts:

From publishing the “Truth of Gujarat” page on Facebook to creating the portal, you have had an extensive journey in activism that focusses on exposing false news. What led you to starting Alt News?

In “Truth of Gujarat” we spoke on multiple subjects like communal bias, and economic issues like the Gujarat model [of development]. In the run-up to the 2014 [parliamentary] election a lot was spoken about the Gujarat model, and we worked on exposing those myths.

However, independent of my parents’ work, I was looking at misinformation even earlier. For instance, busting [the falsehood of] a picture from Singapore which was being claimed as of Gujarat. This trend is not recent. Many people attribute it to [Donald] Trump, but it has been in India for a long time. The difference now is the information reach, with firms like Jio coming into the picture and every telecom operator dropping data charges and an unprecedented number of people getting access to the Internet. Therefore, the misinformation issue is becoming bigger.

I was working full time as a software engineer, but the more I got involved in the activities of the Jan Sangharsh Manch, the more disillusioned I got with my professional life as it did not have an immediate impact on people. Noticing an upsurge in the amount of misinformation, in September 2016 we decided to work on a portal that addressed two things. One is [to check] misinformation, and two, document people’s struggles. The second thing did not happen because we did not have the resources to actually go out on the ground and do that.

How do you define fake news and the phenomenon of “deep fake”?

Fake news is misinformation and disinformation. Misinformation happens when you do not know something is false and you forward it without knowing it. Disinformation is when you know that a certain piece of information is false and you deliberately forward it and therefore end up propagating it. In the Indian context, a large part of misinformation and disinformation is in the form of images/videos that are facilitated with an incorrect narrative. It is not that the image is always fake, such as the image of a woman in Hyderabad saying she was burnt for not wearing a burkha. The image is not fake, but the caption is. That is largely what is going on in misinformation today.

Deep fake is a new thing and it is not an issue that India is facing currently. For instance, there are videos of Barack Obama saying something that he is not actually saying. Using Artificial Intelligence [AI] you create models where you attribute things said to someone [by a person] such as Obama.

With so much information available, how do you monitor and keep track of the media?

We look at both misinformation and disinformation. Over time we have developed means of monitoring. We use a tool called CrowdTangle owned by Facebook and TweetDeck by Twitter. We have created lists of multiple pages, groups, accounts of Facebook, Twitter and websites. We know the pages that are more likely to put out misinformation. We have an inventory on where to look for misinformation. We also keep getting tagged on Twitter, Facebook, email, as to whether this bit of news is true or false.

The second thing is when politicians themselves claim things that are not correct. They have enormous reach. When they say something that is untrue, that should be exposed. The third aspect we look at is what comes out of mainstream media, and there are media portals which have errors that we scrutinise.

Finally we look at health. There is a lot of health-related misinformation in India. A dedicated section looks into this, especially the kind that could lead to loss of life. For example, one of our latest stories is on the Nipah virus epidemic and how a certain homoeopathic drug was propounded to have curative or preventive measures. It was untrue and we exposed it.

Cellular technology has been revolutionary. Yet we see the ugly side of it now. The lynchings have been the result of this. You have spoken about methods to counter the problem.

One is obviously what we are doing, that is writing about misinformation by researching it. We don’t just say that something is true and something is false. We start right from the claim and document the entire research that goes into exhibiting why a certain claim is true or false. Then finally we give a conclusion. We adopted this method because, one, it safeguards us from making a mistake. Two, because when there are so many websites, why should anyone believe us? We need to be able to retrace the steps from a claim to a conclusion. That is how we started doing articles. A more scientific way of doing things.

The second thing that needs to be done, especially in view of the recent mob lynchings, is a national awareness programme. That particular set of rumours is affecting the lower economic strata of the population. They are the ones who fall for these rumours. It is purely a function of lack of digital literacy. Owing to the drop in telecom rates, a lot of India has access to the Internet. Many are first-time users. If you can read a WhatsApp forward then you can read a billboard. There has to be large-scale public awareness programmes for different age [groups] and capacity brackets. One thing we are planning is a full-fledged website that will teach people how to fact-check.

There is an entire industry out there that wants to abuse and play on your emotions. That is what misinformation does. We advise people that if there is something that provokes an extreme reaction from you then it is better to cross-check that piece of information. Not everyone can fact-check, so there has to be a version which teaches them how to deal with information.

What we are most excited about is to develop an app that will allow you to upload a video or photograph which can check whether it has been fact-checked or not. We will send an automated response that will show the original context, where the video was first shared, and the truth of the viral message.

One of the biggest challenges is that the subset of people reading our fact-checked messages and the subset of people who are reading misinformation are largely different, so this would also be a way of increasing the intersection between the two subsets. If they use the app and get an immediate response, in all likelihood they would push it back to the group where they got the information from.

A police officer told Frontline after the Dhule killing (of five people in Maharashtra in July by villagers who suspected that they were part of a gang of child-lifters), “What Pratik Sinha does in Alt News is what the cops should be doing.” Clearly, this is a whole new area of vigilance which perhaps the police are still grappling with. What is your comment?

Immediately after the Ahmedabad lynching [of a woman in June on suspicion of being a member of a child-lifting gang], we contacted the Police Commissioner and told him we wanted to extend all the support we can. Unfortunately, the problem is that we are also busting a lot of political misinformation. Therefore, the state may not be all that fond of us. Several of us at a conference recently suggested we give a joint representation to the government saying there is an urgent need to conduct awareness programmes on digital literacy. We have already started working with journalists, training them not just on fact-checking but also showing them how to train others.

Since we have the resources in place, I feel we should go to the government and create awareness programmes for regular citizens. Children as young as 11 are on WhatsApp. We cannot expect them to fact-check. We could perhaps bring in educationalists. This is an issue affecting every age group and every section of society.

Could competition in the digital media be responsible for the deterioration in news and the spread of misinformation?

Things that come out of the mainstream media are usually not out of malice. There is, of course, biased reporting. A distinction has to be made between biased reporting and misinformation. Now, if anyone does a breaking story then others just refer to that story and put out their story without fact-checking the original story. The writers, for instance, have very little time in getting a story ready, which is why they are not able to fact-check the story and end up putting erroneous information.

The media have to figure this out. There are Western media organisations that are acutely aware of this issue and will not put out a story if there is an issue. It will happen only when credibility starts mattering more. Right now Zee News can get away saying that the Rs.2,000 note had a GPS chip. It did not matter that the misinformation questioned their credibility.

What are your thoughts on legislation? Some countries have done that in an effort to stop the menace.

Any such legislation which allows the government to control what one can publish or write, whether it is direct or indirect control, they always tend to use it against the opposition—irrespective of who is in power—and towards activists, NGOs, anyone critical of the establishment. We have seen that in the past with Section 66A [of the Information Technology Act], which was scrapped eventually.

I am against legislation for two reasons. Take these child-kidnapping rumours, for instance. We are a country of 1.3 billion people. Does claiming that some people in your locality are going to kidnap children constitute a crime under the IPC [Indian Penal Code]? I don’t think putting out a rumour constitutes a crime. In the world of WhatsApp, because it is encrypted you do not know who is the disseminator and who is the propagator. When something goes viral, thousands, sometimes lakhs, of people share it. Who are you going to arrest if you cannot pinpoint who put out the information? It can be used dangerously to target anyone.

Secondly, let us say the police do go from house to house and find the original person, as absurd as it may sound. Then do what? The problem in a country of 1.3 billion people is that there will be enough bad actors who will put out misinformation irrespective of what legislation you bring. What is more important is to educate people on how to deal with misinformation. New laws are not the solution.

WhatsApp has attempted to address the issue of forwards. Given the speed of technology, some other system will replace this that could cause even more damage. Your comments.

WhatsApp is trying to help out. However, it is an encrypted technology. They do not read the data. So if you don’t read the data you cannot differentiate between what is wrong and what is not wrong. The Union government should have woken up after Jharkhand in May 2017 [lynching of seven persons following WhatsApp rumours]. Those were similar to child-kidnapping rumours and the consequences were the same. Not just the government but WhatsApp and all of us should have realised this was going to happen again. This includes the mainstream media, which did not acknowledge that there was an issue that could snowball any time.

Nobody can say we are not responsible for this. Everybody has to come to the table and figure out a solution rather than pass the buck. Furthermore, there are so many ways of reaching out to people such as All India Radio which has a massive base. We need to tap these resources and reach out to people.

With regard to the spread of information and news that is causing disturbing incidents, there is a proposal to shut down applications that allow it. This is until they fix the problem. A threat to profits will make them act. Do you think this is a solution?

Shutting down is not a solution. That will lead to legislation, and the government will shut down anything and everything on the slightest excuse. The profit part of it, however, is interesting. A lot of these sites make a lot of money from ads. Finance is a very important factor here. It is easy money. They put out sleazy content, fake content, things that gain eyeballs. Many of these have ideological leanings that in today’s climate drive huge traffic.

Recently we had a session with Google—a lot of these websites have Google ads—and we highlighted how rampant the fake news issue is and they have to do something about it. You need to cripple them [the websites] economically, and this can be done by alerting those who are advertising. You cannot be making money out of scamming people.