Jency Jacob is the managing editor of BOOM (www.boomlive.in), one of India’s leading fact-checking websites. He has 22 years of experience working with some of the top television and print networks in the country. In an interview with Frontline, Jacob weighs in on a variety of issues involved in the fact-checking industry. Excerpts:
With the explosion in disinformation and false reporting on social and television media, what is the importance of fact-checking forums such as Alt News or BOOM?
Fact-checking has emerged as a new form of journalism, but it would not have been so if the mainstream media had risen to the challenge of disinformation on social media and the need to verify comments made by those in public life and put them through the lens of greater scrutiny. In many ways, while fact-checkers may have put the craft of tech and old-styled journalism to greater use while reporting their stories, the basic principles remain the same—verify every bit of information with primary sources, rely less on unnamed sources, and attribute every bit of information that a reader can verify while reading the story.
We live in a post-truth world, where you debunk one story and hundreds more emerge, so in a way it seems like a Sisyphean task.
It is definitely a tough job as we are constantly fighting against unscrupulous state and non-state actors who have the strong backing of those with political power and unlimited funding muscle. Most fact-checkers, not just in India but around the world, are start-ups that have either been founded by former mainstream media journalists or those concerned with the deteriorating quality of verified information in the public domain. And since we are always punching above our weight, we realise that we have to keep ourselves relevant by developing new tech skills, tracking networks and repeat offenders, and holding them accountable.
The job of a fact checker, like any other journalist, is to not look at the outcome of her work but to report. If there were no fact checkers, the world would not be any better but would only be worse as those involved in spreading disinformation would wreak havoc without anyone to hold them accountable. It is also the job of the platforms that have an outsized influence in our lives to work with fact checkers and prevent the misuse of their tools.
The fact that many citizens choose to disregard fact checks and believe falsehoods is also a function of the post-truth world we live in where we pay more attention to our ideological leanings than data or evidence backed information.
Can you briefly describe the process and some of the methods used at BOOM to debunk false information?
The process to debunk videos and images are multi-layered. For images, one of the first and most basic steps is to use to a reverse image search via various search engines such as Google and Yandex for example. If the image is not found on this, then we use specific keywords while running the reverse search to get accurate results. For videos, we use a tool called InVid which lets you break the video into key frames.
Key frames allow the reporter to analyse the video as individual images. We then run a reverse search on the key frame, and depending on the story, use the magnifying tool to look for further clues. Apart from these two methods, we sometimes have to look at the video by slowing it down, look for images by setting a specific date and time (Google allows you to do so), use Google Lens to translate text on it. Google Maps is also an important tool which allows fact checkers to pinpoint (geolocate) the location of the incident to debunk the claim.
Do you take the initiative to verify reportage and claims that are seemingly suspicious or do you respond only if someone sends in a request to have a claim checked?
We have multiple input sources to crowdsource what our readers receive on their social media feeds. One of the most important sources for us are our WhatsApp tiplines, that run 24x7. We have now automated one of our tiplines to ensure that repeat falsehoods are debunked quickly by sending the user our previously fact-checked stories. Fresh claims are collected every morning and several times during the day, and sent to the newsroom online for verification and publishing fact checks. Since our newsroom does not have the resources of large newsrooms, we are not always able to meet the demand, but we try our best to prioritise claims based on their immediacy, virality and the prospect of causing greater harm if not debunked in time.
While social media is tremendously useful, it is also dangerous as it provides a platform for false and dangerous information to go viral instantly.
When you flag something as “false” or “fake”, do these social media giants take action?
We work with a couple of platforms on short-term and long-term projects related to flagging misinformation. Social media platforms work on the premise that they want to reduce the spread of false news on their platforms instead of taking down posts or accounts unless they are repeat offenders or violate their community standards. There is huge room for improvement in how they deal with this issue and fact checkers are constantly talking with them to push for a more active and direct role in ensuring that dangerous online unverified information that goes viral is taken down before it causes more harm offline.
While fake news and propaganda campaigns have become an intrinsic part of Indian social media usage, a large part of this misinformation comes from the vast social media machinery of the right-wing and is targeted at religious minorities and the political opposition. How do we deal with a situation where fake news is given a fillip by members of a ruling party?
We approach it one story at a time and have published several fact checks that look at standalone misinformation, individuals and narratives before large events like State and national elections. There is no doubt that certain politicians and political parties have developed large online armies to propagate their agenda and spread disinformation that target certain communities and individuals to serve their petty and short-sighted narratives.
There are no easy solutions to this problem unless the institutions in this country including the courts take a strong view.
Apart from basic training in reporting and technical skills, has it become contingent on aspiring journalists to be specifically trained in fact-checking skills?
Of course, it has. At BOOM, we have a well-developed media literacy arm that works closely with media houses, journalists, educators, journalism schools and even secondary schools to ensure that the young are better equipped to differentiate between facts and false narratives. Over the years, we have turned a strong lens towards stories written by mainstream media journalists/news channel anchors to expose the lack of rigour when it comes to primary sourcing and publishing news based on facts. There is a lot of lazy journalism in the country and the fault lies with editors and publishers who have failed to invest in educating and upskilling their teams to the new challenges of digital news. Virality and page views are being given more importance than sticking to facts, which explains why there is lack of trust in the minds of news consumers.
India ranks 150 (among 180 countries) in the latest edition of the World Press Freedom Index. How dangerous is it to be a fact checker today, against the background of the arrest of Mohammed Zubair, the co-founder of Alt News?
I would say that the World Press Freedom Index is a good place to compare ourselves with large democracies and examine why our institutions have failed to use existing provisions of our constitution and legal system to protect free press. Not just fact checkers, it is a dangerous time today to be a ground reporter, as those in power are becoming increasingly shrill and intolerant to being made accountable by journalists who want to do their job honestly. We want to exist and thrive to ensure our democracy exists and thrives. If fact checkers are not feeling safe, then it speaks volumes of the society and the future we leave for the next generation.