How Alt News is trying to take on the fake news ecosystem in India
In its brief career so far, AltNews has quickly begun to acquire a reputation as a slayer of fake news
There’s one fake news video that most agitates Pratik Sinha — though he’s seen a lot of them. In this particular piece of shaky handheld footage, that Sinha has deconstructed online, a young girl is bloodied and being beaten as an angry mob closes in on her. The frame needs to be rotated, but it’s pretty clear that a lynching is under way.
It’s been in circulation for a couple of years and those forwarding it would have you believe this is a Hindu Marwari girl being beaten by Muslim men in Andhra Pradesh. The accompanying explanation claims the girl refused to wear a burqa after marrying a Muslim man and thereafter met a grisly end. Sinha repeats the line that goes with the video in Hindi, from memory.
“All group members are requested that this video should be shared so extensively via WhatsApp that the video reaches Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi so that he can take some instant action regarding this issue and today’s the day when WhatsApp needs to be used effectively for this purpose,” reads the forward.
But no matter how many times it gets forwarded, it won’t change the fact that this is a two-year-old video of a mob attacking a 16-year-old girl in a Guatemalan village following her suspected involvement in a murder. The truth, however, has not come in the way of this video having a fruitful viral run as an instance of communal violence in India.
“It’s a very horrible video to watch,” said Sinha, 35, a co-founder of AltNews.in, a new “anti-propaganda site”, on the phone from Ahmedabad. “Even I felt sick after watching it.”
But Sinha knows the video frame by frame — quite literally. When it first came to his notice he broke it down to a manageable frame speed and then reverse-searched images on Google to locate where it had been hosted. This later led to news articles about the Guatemalan incident, and voila, it was the same video being passed off as a lynching in India.
This is just one of several fake news videos the site has debunked since it went live on 9 February 2017. Founded by Sinha and an anonymous co-founder known in the social media world as Unofficial Sususwamy, AltNews describes itself as a website for the “post-truth world”; one that aims to “act as an antidote to the right-wing propagandists that have established themselves in the mainstream media”. It’s a three-person voluntary effort so far (they have one other contributor) and in four months has been slowly making its presence felt online.
On average they bust one fake news video a week, Sinha estimates. He rattles off other egregious examples: the Pakistani army beheading an Indian jawan, a Muslim killing a Hindu in Bihar.
“Almost all of these are cases of grotesque videos of murders, beheadings, violence,” he said, “and in most cases they are described as Muslims killing Hindus.”
When such videos reach Sinha it requires a measure of forensic online work – slowing it down, scraping the internet to find where it has previously been posted, analysing visible signage in the background, looking at streetscapes and trying to catch the language being spoken. For Sinha, this is now a full-time endeavour.
AltNews is one of the platforms to have emerged as a direct response to the proliferation of fake news in India, also an increasingly pernicious problem across the world. Last week, the actor Paresh Rawal became the latest victim of a fake news story when he tweeted that the writer Arundhati Roy should be used as a human shield, following her reported remarks on the Indian army in Kashmir. She said she had neither recently been to Kashmir nor said anything of the kind being reported. The news had ricocheted through a series of right-wing websites after having been picked up from Pakistani sites, leading to a very real brouhaha over a very fake story.
The superhighway of misinformation is paved through Whatsapp, Facebook and social media more broadly, where morphed pictures, mistitled videos and blatantly false accounts move at remarkable speed. “Such videos are inciting violence,” said Sinha. “They are criminal in nature.” In its brief career so far, AltNews has quickly begun to acquire a reputation as a slayer of fake news. Sinha said he had compiled a list of at least 40 websites trading in fake news, most in Hindi, and most with a strong pro-BJP bent. “It’s more in the right wing eco-system,” he said.
Alt News is updated about two or three times a day, but upending fake news isn’t its only focus. It also does other kinds news updates and analyses. “We want to stay away from opinions,” he said. “My point is, you may not agree with my ideology, which you could say is left of centre, but you won’t be able to deny the facts that I am presenting.”
About six months before the site went live, Sinha quit his job as a software engineer. He had already been active in Jan Sangharsh Manch, the non-profit his parents founded, that has been working on the Gujarat false encounter cases, among other things. Since 2013 he has also been running the “Truth of Gujarat” page, a site focused on news about the riots.
Though he didn’t explicitly quit his day job to start Alt News, Sinha’s ongoing activism work eventually overwhelmed his professional life.
Things came to a head last year when protesting with sanitation workers in Ahmedabad, he kept getting detained by the police. “It’s difficult to do a software engineering job when you are detained every few days,” he said, wryly. “I realised I am more inclined towards activism and I thought maybe I can start a website.”
Alt News has so far nearly 18,000 fans on Facebook and more than 5,000 followers on Twitter — which may be small, but its reach is slowly growing.
A few days after the website was launched, Sinha received a threatening call from a man claiming to be the gangster Ravi Pujari. “He said, 'you must be knowing who I am?',” said Sinha. “I was still sleepy, I said I didn’t recognise him.” Pujari was calling to say Sinha should stop writing. He later informed the police.
Sinha didn’t sound rattled by the incident. Neither did he sound concerned about the hotly divided nature of public opinion today, with people in ideologically insulated bubbles shunning information not aligning with their worldviews. He said right-leaning people had also shared their stories and that people were thirsty for correct information too. “People are also looking for material to debunk [fake news stories],” he said. “They may know it’s fake but they don’t have the arsenal. The posts are reaching many people.”
Still, Alt News can hardly take on the vast and fast-moving fake news machinery on its own, simply by calling out one video a week. Sinha said tackling the menace would require a collaborative effort between the mainstream media, social media platforms and the authorities.
“We as a platform can’t have much impact on our own,” said Sinha. “We know our limitations, but it is necessary to keep talking. Only if we keep talking can anything happen.”
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