Hyderabad: In an era of too much information, the truth might be a needle lost in a haystack of convenient lies. People like Pratik Sinha, the editor and co-founder of Alt News, are at the forefront of helping people solve this problem. Founded in 2017, Alt News debunks lies and myths that are circulated on social media networks. It also calls out powerful people who help spread these lies like wildfire.
Sinha was in Hyderabad on Friday to deliver a talk on misinformation, popularly known as ‘fake news’, to mass communications and journalism students at Osmania University.
Sinha started his talk with the example of a woman from Malaysia who had been beaten to death in Tamil Nadu in May 2018. “The woman had gotten down to ask for directions to a temple. She saw a few children playing there and offered them some chocolates. This was a time when rumours of mysterious gangs kidnapping children were spreading through social media websites. Onlookers thought this woman was one such kidnapper. In a frenzy, they ganged up on her and beat her to death,” he explained. He also spoke of two Assamese men who were tied up and beaten to death by a mob in their own state after being mistaken for child kidnappers.
Sinha said misinformation is spread in many forms and ways but is always designed to push a person’s ‘emotional buttons’. “There is a war on your emotions on social media,” he said.
Sinha said misinformation itself was not new, but its acceleration to the people is a new phenomenon. He referred to how internet usage had exploded just between June 2016 (200 million GS) to March 2017 (1,300 million GB) in India. “Today, the number is estimated to be 2,000 million GB. There are many new users who are not internet-literate and easily fall for rumours,” he said.
Sinha was quick to add that the mobs too need to be treated as victims: “These mobs that kill people based on rumours have to be considered victims of misinformation.”
Misinformation comes in many streams. The most common, said Sinha, is the one that targets minorities. There are several examples of messages, doctored pictures and videos which try to paint a minority community in bad light. “In 2017, a video of a woman being beaten to death went viral. The text that accompanied it claimed the woman was a Muslim who was killed for refusing to wear a burqa. However, after some quick fact-checking, we found the video was actually from Guatemala,” he said.
Sinha said these messages don’t happen by chance. “There is always someone, somewhere who takes some content and tries to spin it in the way they want,” he said. He gave the examples of websites like ‘insistpost, chaskatimes and viralinindia which pandered to BJP and Congress interests. “Such cases are found on all sides of the political spectrum,” he added.
Sinha has a word of caution for mainstream journalism outlets as well. “Some major news organisations have tried to spread lies in one way or another. The important thing to remember is that a lot of these outlets have strict deadlines. The people in-charge of putting up content on websites need to be given more time to verify the facts,” he said. He called for people to have a critical outlook to information.
The most confounding stream of misinformation is found in the medical sphere. Messages
and videos of miracle drugs that cure diseases like dengue and malaria often find their way on YouTube and later WhatsApp inboxes.
“It is hard to pinpoint why one would spread lies like that. But in a world where money can be made off of content, someone will try to cash in on the most popular fear of the time,” he said....