AltNews founder Pratik Sinha talks about fake news, its reach and impact in the Indian society, and ways to tackle this newly emerged social evil in a conversation with Fasiullah SM in Hyderabad. He suggests more internet literacy to beat fake news.
Below are excerpts:
Fake news has emerged as a new social evil. What’s its reach and impact in India?
In case of fake news, it is difficult to measure reach and impact in terms of numbers. We have platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp. In WhatsApp there are no analytics whatsoever, and its encrypts messages.
Impact can be seen in terms of effect. In Jharkhand we saw that seven people were lynched based on WhatsApp rumors. The people lynched are not murderers. They got into a situation of fear psychosis.
To what extent youth is involved in manufacturing, consuming and spreading fake news?
If you we look at statistics, about 70 percent people on Facebook are below the age of 30 years. At Facebook level, the creation and consumption of fake news is by youth. In WhatsApp you don’t know. There’s a huge explosion of mobile data. From about 200 million GBPS in March 2016 to 1.3 billion GBPS in March 2017. So, there are a lot of first time users across the country, which includes elderly people. They are the one more susceptible to fake news compared to youth. The fake news phenomenon is shifting from being purely youth oriented to elderly people.
Technologically, how challenging it is for platforms like Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp to address fake news menace?
Let’s start with WhatsApp, which is the biggest distributor of fake news at this point of time. When a message is send from A to B and that identical message is sent from B to C, they look different on the line because of end-to-end encryption. We want encryption and privacy, but at the same time it poses a challenge for this platform as to how do they tackle the issue of fake news when they are not able to track the message.
On the other hand, Facebook is in a better position. It has a central encryption key. It runs on https. Facebook can actually read your data, therefore we see targeted advertisement. Facebook can easily track fake news, and once it is reported as fake news the company should be able to take action. But unfortunately, Facebook hasn’t done anything to that effect. And Twitter is like Facebook.
Have you reached out to Facebook, Twitter and Google to address the fake news problem?
AltNews as a platform has not approached Facebook or Twitter. But recently AltNews was invited to a Google News Lab conference in Singapore. In that the first focus area was trust and verification, which is essentially the issue of fake news. So, Google is taking fake news issue in a serious manner.
It appears aam aadmi may not be able to identify fake news easily. What could be the strategy then to dilute effect of the fake news?
Yes it’s true. The laymen or aam aadmi working all day, they come home and have limited time for entertainment. Then comes fake videos on WhatsApp. A normal person doesn’t have time, or capability to figure out what’s fake and what’s not. Fake news has become such a huge issue; to leave it in the hands of aam aadmi is not viable anymore. Institutions have to come into picture.
Has Union government or any state govt. taken fake news seriously as a problem?
In general, neither the Union government nor state governments acknowledge the effect of fake news. In the case of Jharkhand, even after seven people were lynched nobody brought the core issue. They are not even ready to put that on board that this is an issue. That’s the problem at this point of time.
But the West Bengal government recently arrested some people who circulated fake image. They arrested BJP IT Cell coordinator, who circulated a fake video. That’s only state that started to take legal action against people who might have circulated fake news.
Governments in general have not taken cognizance of this huge issue of fake news.
What we need is something to be done at the national level by the law enforcement agencies. Like weather advisory, we need advisory on fake news. At the end of the day, what we need is more internet literacy.
In this case, what civil society can do to address this problem?
Right now there are two three websites: AltNews, BoomLive, and SMHoaxslayer. Three websites can’t do so much. When a fake video is viral, essentially what you wanted is to stop it from being viral within 24 hours or less to reduce the impact. Therefore, what you need is more platforms coming up, and talking about the issue of fake news.