Indian media fights fake news in run up to Lok Sabha elections

India became a breeding ground for the spread of fake news in May 2017, when seven men were lynched in Jharkhand following rumours of a gang kidnapping of children. The police said they had not registered a single case of kidnapping. The men were killed over a rumour.

by Neha Gupta | February 1, 2019

WhatsApp took out full-page advertisements following a string of lynchings in India sparked by the propagation of fake news reports. (AFP Photo)

A BBC report reveals that fake news is spreading in India owing to a “rising tide of nationalism.” Right-wing networks are much more organised than on the Left, giving a push to “nationalistic fake stories.”

Such violence and rumour mongering is not limited to India; incidents have also taken place in Brazil and Sri Lanka.

In India, the roots of misinformation are linked to a rise in nationalism and an overarching fear of children being harmed. Mob violence, fueled by doctored videos and fake images, has resulted in several injuries, and in some cases, fatalities.

One of the ways that misinformation has found its way into the news cycle is through the catalyst of WhatsApp, the Facebook-owned messaging platform. India is the world’s second largest smartphone market (after China), and WhatsApp’s largest market, with more than 250 million monthly active users.

In an effort to combat fake news, in August 2018, WhatsApp imposed a limit on the forwarding of messages in India to no more than five contacts. In January, this limit was extended globally.

IndiaSpend, a data journalism outlet, estimates 33 people to have been killed in 69 incidents of mob violence between January 2017 and July 2018.

Government proposal rejected

In August 2018, and again in October, the Indian government asked Facebook for the provision to stop and trace problematic messages, a demand that would short-circuit the encrypted security that is central to the app’s popularity.

WhatsApp would have to break into its encrypted chats to trace rumours that fuel violence, putting user privacy at stake. Facebook has steadfastly opposed the Indian government’s demand.

“The problem with encryption is that you cannot identify the source of the fake news. However, one can verify the nature of the news. A major chunk of fake news that circulates on WhatsApp, comes to us through our readers on our fact-checking portal. We get emails through the day asking us for verification,” says Ritu Kapur, co-founder and CEO of The Quint.

In the run-up to India’s closely-watched general elections, newsrooms are launching initiatives aimed at combating misinformation.

The Quint‘s fact-checking initiative, WebQoof (a play on the Hindi word Bewaqoof meaning “idiot”), launched in 2017.

“Our journalists make it a point to get in touch with the source and look up the history of the issue at hand. Online tools are only the first level of filter. In India, technology can be used only to a point. We are a newsroom that has access to multiple sources and conducts frequent ground checks,” – Ritu Kapur, The Quint

WebQoof is the brand’s fastest growing section in terms of readership. The fact-checking process is two-fold: The newsroom-wide effort involves journalists producing stories and multimedia content around spotting fake-news, in close collaboration with regional media and fact-checking websites.



For the 2019 general elections, The Quint’s strategy is to use the portal to its advantage.

“We will also have a focus team that will work on only election-related fake news doing the rounds. The BBC is working in collaboration with several national publishers for the elections. They are setting up a pop-up newsroom in Rajasthan, and one of our reporters will be working closely with them,” says Kapur.

Even though The Hindu does not employ special technologies for fact-checking, Mukund Padmanabhan, the editor, says his newsroom is armed to fight fake news on the D-day.

“We need to be careful about news put out on social media, and not assume it to be true simply because it is out there. We also need to cross-check what TV channels put out – in this time, where it’s a race to put out news, it is important that we do our own diligent fact-checking.” – Mukund Padmanabhan, The Hindu

The Hindu newsroom regularly sends its journalists to campaigns by Google and Facebook on fighting fake news.

BBC research on misinformation in India

The BBC launched an international anti-disinformation initiative, co-funded by Google, in November, 2018 called “Beyond Fake News.”

BBC News (World)


The BBC is launching a series today on disinformation and fake news, with documentaries, reports and features on TV, radio and online. There are conferences in Delhi and Nairobi, and new research from India and Africa into why people spread fake news. 


Nationalism driving fake news in India

BBC research shows how a desire to reinforce national identity is pushing people to share fake news.

1,521 people are talking about this

The research finds that the coverage of “fake news” in the Indian media during the past three years has grown by nearly 200 percent, partly driven by the Cambridge Analytica exposé at the time of state elections.

The project aims to combat disinformation with a major focus on global media literacy. Drawing inspiration from the brand’s work in the UK, the project will include panel debates, hackathons exploring tech solutions, and a special season of programming across BBC’s networks in Africa, India, Asia Pacific, Europe, the USA and Central America.

Disinformation has caused rampant social and political mishaps globally, while recording a drop in public’s trust in the news.

As part of the research, users in India, Kenya and Nigeria gave the BBC unprecedented access to their encrypted messaging apps over a seven-day period, allowing the researchers to examine the kinds of material they shared, whom they shared it with and how often.

“In 2018, I pledged that the BBC World Service Group would move beyond just talking about the global ‘fake news’ threat and take concrete steps to address it,” –Jamie Angus, Director, BBC World Service Group

The research had several important findings.

Cheap data

A significant drop in the cost of data and smartphones has encouraged people to engage with notifications every few minutes.

Constant notifications 

Our default behaviour is to keep notifications on and “we believe this behaviour is quite widespread, for many respondents, when asked how they come to know about a news event, say that it’s “because of notifications. In India, citizens actively seem to be privileging breadth of information over depth,” states the report.

Researches also found that contrary to Americans, “Indians at this moment are not themselves articulating any kind of anxiety about dealing with the flood of information in their phones. If anything, they only see the positives of social media.”

Pictures over text

Images were found to be “overwhelmingly preferred for consumption or to engage with” in India.

Blurred boundaries

A lot of Indians do not understand the difference between information, analysis and opinion. “With the definition of news becoming expansive and all encompassing, we find that anything of importance to the citizen is now considered ‘news.’”

No sourcing

Sourcing of content is usually absent. “The credibility of the sender is what gives legitimacy to the message. The original source, if at all present in the message itself, is often ignored or unnoticed in Facebook, or completely absent in WhatsApp,” says the research.

The research concludes that the chances of a fake news message spreading on a nationwide scale on WhatsApp are slim. The hook that is helping the mobilization of violence in India might not be its reach, scale or speed of transmission, but the fact that it is uniting people in tight networks of like-mindedness.

Socio-political identity plays a key role in sharing of fake news, especially for those on the right. The multiple distinct identities emerging within the right are all bound by common narratives, but there is no real unified sense of a “left” identity in India.

Instead, there are micro identities (eg Tamil, Bengali, Dalit), and even within that a deeply held socio-political identity can sometimes get reduced to the level of an issue for others within the broad “left.”

Political parties ‘abusing’ WhatsApp

In the run up to the general elections, India’s political parties are putting in money to create thousands of WhatsApp group chats to spread political messages and memes.

According to Reuters, WhatsApp refused to name the parties or disclose the exact nature of the alleged misuse.

BJP’s head of information technology, Amit Malviya, denied meeting WhatsApp representatives. Congress’ social media head, Divya Spandana, said the party does not abuse WhatsApp, according to the Reuters report.

According to a report by Hindustan Times, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has drawn up a “booth action plan”.

The plan that has been prepared by party president Amit Shah has asked state units to compile the list of smart phone carrying voters in every polling station. Once this list is ready, the party’s war room in its old HQ located in Delhi’s Ashoka Road will get into the act of integrating it with the proposed programme.

India has more than 900,000 polling booths. Every booth will have three WhatsApp groups, each containing a maximum of 256 members, circulating specially designed campaign material – video, audio, text, graphic and cartoons – according to the report.

“In some stations where three WhatsApp groups are not possible, the nodal person will operate at least one,” Hindustan Times quoted a leader as saying.

Facebook’s fact-checking initiatives

Facebook removes fake accounts and disrupts economic incentives for traffickers of misinformation who make money by masquerading as legitimate news publishers and posting hoaxes that prompt people to visit their sites, which are often just ads.

“We use signals to predict which articles, photos, and videos may be false or misleading, including user feedback. These signals are critical for training our machine learning models to identify more potential false news,” – Vertika Yadav, Facebook spokesperson

Misinformation is not limited to articles – people share things natively, and when it is something visual, it can be even more visceral and harder to suspend disbelief.

“We want to understand the scope of photo and video misinformation better, and the different forms it can take,” Yadav says.

Facebook rolled out tests for fact-checking of photos and videos, in March 2018, a project that is still in its nascent stage.

“The skills required in authenticating multimedia are very different from those required for text-based verification. We need to stay ahead of new types of false news such as deep fakes,” Yadav says.

Fake news and technology

Facebook works with partners that have been certified through the Poynter Institute’s non-partisan International Fact Checking Network. Currently, they are working with BOOM and AFP in India.

Algorithms cannot fundamentally determine true from false, but they help nevertheless.

Facebook’s system is a hybrid of people and technology. Its machine learning models identify links to articles that might be false, the model predictions of which it uses to prioritise the links it shows to third-party fact-checkers. They review stories, check facts, and rate their accuracy. The confirmed fact-checker ratings also help train the brand’s machine learning model.

Machine learning also helps the company in identifying duplicates of debunked stories.

For example, after a fact-checker in France debunked the claim that one can save a person having a stroke by using a needle to prick their finger and draw blood, the company was able to identify and reduce the spread of the same claim by more than 1,400 links and over 20 domains.

“For the 2019 general elections, there is no place for foreign interference on Facebook. We have learned a number of lessons from 2016. Since then we’ve worked laboriously to prevent any mishaps. We are investing heavily in people and technology, and working towards more ad transparency. Elections in India are important, and we’ll be doing our best to protect its integrity,” – Vertika Yadav, Facebook spokesperson

Facebook opened its first physical election war room in California, in September. The goal was to get the right subject-matter experts from across the company in one place for them to address potential problems identified by the company’s technology in real time and respond quickly.

The measure came after Facebook was accused of doing too little to prevent misinformation efforts by Russia and others in the 2016 US election.

How Google is helping combat misinformation

In October 2018, Google launched the beta version of a tool specifically for verifying content. The feature uses the same signals as other Google products, such as Google News, to surface work from fact-checkers such as Snopes and PolitiFact.

Google India has launched a range of monitoring and policy initiatives in India with the Lok Sabha elections around the corner, that will see BJP contesting for a second term in power. The company is also partnering with the Election Commission of India.

In a blog post, Google said it aims to make election advertising more transparent. The company announced that it will introduce an India-specific Political Advertising Transparency Report and searchable Political Ads Library that will be a one-stop shop for comprehensive information about who is purchasing election ads on Google’s platforms and for how much.

“The election ads policy for India requires that advertisers running ads in India provide a pre-certificate issued by the Election Commission of India (ECI), or anyone authorised by the ECI, for each ad they wish to run. Further, Google will verify the identity of advertisers before their election ads run on our platforms. The verification process will begin on 14 February 2019,” Google said.

In 2018, Google announced its $300 million Google News Initiative to train journalists to fight fake news. As part of its efforts in India, the search giant plans to train 8,000 journalists during the course of a year.

“We are proud to collaborate with Internews, DataLeads and BoomLive to support journalists in their fight against misinformation in India. Our goal is to train more than 200 trainers, who will then train 8,000 journalists in six languages over the next year, making this Google’s largest training network in the world,” – Irene Jay Liu, Google News Lab Lead, Asia-Pacific

Neha Gupta

Multimedia Journalist

Share via
Copy link