Before India’s elections, voters feed on false information

The multi-phase general election in India begins April 11. (AP)
Updated 10 April 2019

Before India’s elections, voters feed on false information

  • A former top election official is warning that fake news could end up being the deciding factor in some constituencies with extremely tight races
  • Tackling fake news is a huge challenge in India, a nation with 1.14 billion cellphone connections

NEW DELHI: New Delhi shop owner Ram Shankar Rai spends at least two hours a day going through political news and videos shared with him on social media.
Rai looked intently at a flurry of videos and photos on WhatsApp about an Indian airstrike in Pakistan, including pictures labeled as militants’ corpses.
There was just one problem: The photos were not of militants but of casualties of a 2005 earthquake that killed thousands of people in Pakistan.
But the 50-year-old didn’t see anything amiss. “It’s news,” he said. “How can it be fake?“
Before the world’s largest democracy starts voting Thursday in a phased election carried out over six weeks, this attitude is posing a problem for election officials seeking to combat the spread of fake news among a population that experts say has proven highly susceptible to believing it.
Despite efforts by India’s Election Commission to work with social media giants, urging them to tackle the spread of misinformation, at least one former top election official is warning that fake news could end up being the deciding factor in some constituencies with extremely tight races.
The election is already taking place in a charged atmosphere as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party seeks a second term by pushing policies that some say have increased religious tensions and undermined multiculturalism.
The opposition Congress party, which is also spending sizable sums of money on social media ads, is trying to revive its past glory and turn around a declining voter base.
Tackling fake news is a huge challenge in India, a nation with 1.14 billion cellphone connections, the most Facebook users in the world at 300 million, and another 240 million users of the messaging service WhatsApp. In such an environment, fake news can spread faster than regulators can act.
Watchdogs say in the run-up to the vote they’ve seen everything from manipulated pictures being picked up by mainstream news media, to misrepresented quotes sparking communal division, false news and hateful propaganda. And it looks like people are buying it.
Indian Internet users, many of whom are relatively new to the web, may lack the awareness of knowing that “just because it’s on a screen does not mean it’s true,” said Apar Gupta, who runs an advocacy group called the Internet Freedom Foundation.
India’s problem with fake news isn’t new, though, and it has already proven to have deadly consequences. In late 2018, at least 20 people were killed in mob attacks that were triggered by rumors on social media of strangers abducting children from villages.
Efforts by social media giants to combat fake news in the country were intensified after executives were called in by the Election Commission earlier this year and told to curb the spread of manipulative political information and adhere to the country’s laws on election campaigning.
Social media companies followed that with a “Voluntary Code of Ethics” for the elections that they submitted to the government. It’s essentially a best practices agreement that they will try to abide by the Election Commission’s suggestions and rules, including prohibiting campaign advertisements for at least 48 hours before polling begins.
But at least two former Election Commission bosses said they don’t believe enough is being done.
“The potential of mischief for subversion of the process of elections represented by social media is immense,” said N. Gopalaswami, who was India’s chief election commissioner from 2006 to 2009.
He said he was concerned fake news could play a huge role in very tight races.
Gupta said the Election Commission should have enforced accountability for political parties and social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp, with penalties for violations.
“India has clearly not done enough,” he said, adding that some of the responsibility lies with the social media platforms.
“The Internet has grown up and is having to leave its parents’ home and find a job,” he said, suggesting that platforms should tune their search engine algorithms to weigh the credibility of sources more heavily than ads and viral content.
Digital platforms have been scrambling to devise strategies to tackle the spread of false information ahead of the election.
Facebook announced a variety of measures last month, from blocking fake accounts to employing third-party fact-checking organizations for the elections.
WhatsApp has introduced a fact-checking helpline, encouraging users to flag messages for verification. It also started re-circulating an old advertising video urging people to “share joy, not rumors.” The video was first launched after the 2018 mob attacks.
But with new pages and accounts being created daily to push political content, it’s a hefty task.
“It is an adversarial space,” said Kaushik Iyer, a Facebook engineering manager who works on election integrity and safety.
“What that means is that we will always see adaptation. We will always see new threats emerge,” he told The Associated Press in an interview at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, California.
He said Facebook was getting better at tracking down the misrepresented and manipulated videos and audio that form a big chunk of fake content on their platform in India.
And for all its negatives, social media can also play a positive role in an election, especially for young voters who say it has enabled them to better understand candidates and engage with them.
“Rather than campaign rallies where we are just passive observers, social media is a better representation of our opinions,” said Sarthak Singh Dalal, a history student at Delhi University.
Rai, the shop owner, said he has started to take a closer look at the social media content forwarded to him, trying to identify biases hidden in what he had just considered news.
“Obviously, we have to use a bit of sense,” he said.


Photojournalism key to promoting tolerance in digital age, world summit told

Updated 13 November 2019

Photojournalism key to promoting tolerance in digital age, world summit told

  • Fact checking essential in a media increasingly reliant on citizen journalism
  • Increasing risk of falling foul of what some call 'fake news'

DUBAI: Every picture tells a story and with the rise of digital media the camera may be a journalist’s only tool to accurately convey information while playing a role in promoting tolerance among the masses.

Sharing this view was a panel of journalists and media professionals speaking at the World Tolerance Summit being held at the Madinat Jumeirah resort in Dubai between Nov. 13 and 14.

Exploring tolerance practices from around the world under the theme “Tolerance in Multiculturalism: Achieving the Social, Economic and Humane Benefits of a Tolerant World,” the summit’s second edition was expected to gather 3,000 participants from more than 100 countries, including top-level officials, peace experts, diplomats and youth.

Mohammed Fahad Al-Harthi, editor-in-chief of Sayidaty, Arrajol, and Al-Jamila magazines, kicked off the first day of the conference by calling on media outlets to enhance their approach to the delivery of news through frequent on-the-ground reporting and visual material.

In an era of citizen journalism and social media influencers, news media outlets have often been blamed for playing a key role in spreading false information and reporting fake news.

To combat this perception, Al-Harthi said print and digital media must elevate their standards by incorporating fact-checking tools into their day-to-day reporting.

“We must also identify the people affected in news stories in order to impact readers and bring them back to values such as tolerance. If there is no camera, there is no news,” he added.

Al-Harthi noted the importance of adopting platforms such as social media that allow news outlets to engage with their audience, creating a channel to exchange views and feedback. He pointed to Sayidaty magazine’s 2013 “White Campaign” against child brides as an example of positive use of social media to encourage the “voiceless” to tell their stories.

The campaign reached more than 42 million people in the Arab world, gaining the support of members of the Saudi royal family, government officials, journalists and NGOs from throughout the region.

Running for a period of three months, it focused on countries known to previously tolerate child marriages such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Yemen, with the goal of pressurizing governments to increase the minimum age for marriage and criminalize sexual abuse.

“This was one of the most successful campaigns carried out by the media as we were able to stop five marriages involving children in three countries,” said Al-Harthi.

Commenting on the power of images and video in news reporting, Anelise Borges, Paris-based correspondent for Euronews France, described social media as a “double-edged sword.”

She said: “The entire world is struggling to find a balance between freedom of speech and responsibility and accountability.”

Borges talked about her 10-day experience onboard the Aquarius, a vessel operated by Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) and SOS Mediterranee, capturing human stories of men, women and children who risked everything to reach Europe in search of a better life.

Sailing across the Mediterranean, Borges witnessed the rescue of two rubber boats overcrowded with refugees who had travelled long distances to escape the violence of war.

“We had seen these migrants as victims, poor people, and masses without names or faces. I wanted to go there and see who we are talking about and let them speak for themselves,” said Borges.

With the issue of migrants and refugees considered a major crisis in Europe, Borges pointed out that it was their voices that were “missing in the conversation” among governments today.

Through raw images and videos documenting distressing stories of struggle, Borges said she was able to explain to viewers and decision-makers the impact their choices and decisions were having on migrants.

“Our job as journalists is to tell a story, which only works through engagement and conversation with the people involved,” she said, stressing the importance of empathy. “It is not us versus them anymore.”

Sharing the same views, panelist Mohammed Khairy, a director and producer with Saint Films in Egypt, discussed his efforts to raise awareness about Christian Egyptians through his film “Jesus was here.” 

Traveling around the country to identify different sects of Christians, he documented individual stories, reflecting their struggles from a “cinematic perspective.”

In his documentary, he sheds light on the history of Christianity in Egypt, with hopes to influence intolerant views in the society of the “so-called minority” group.

“As a film director, you put a lot of effort into research and fact-checking and verifying information whether it’s from a book, a person, or a verified source,” said Khairy, commenting on the challenges facing journalists in the news industry. “At times, the process in film can take up to a year to finalize,” he added.