Fake news and misinformation are the bane of the information age. Fake news, however, is not a new phenomenon. In the pre-internet world, it is said that printing presses would print pamphlets or newsbooks offering information around ‘monstrous beasts’ or ‘fantasy events’. As long as human imagination exists, so does the need for drama and escapism. While in the pre-internet era, harm caused by misinformation was mostly contained to very limited pockets, social media has amplified the creation of fake news, with hardly any checks and balances to verify authenticity.
That is where the role of Indian fact checking platform Alt News comes in. In a conversation with Pratik Sinha, Founder of Alt News, we delve into the cost of fact checking, what it takes to cultivate a fact-check behaviour and more…Read to find out.
How costly is fact-checking? In the age of cost cuts, how will newsrooms invest in this enterprise?
Fact-checking in its current form is primarily a desk job, and hence doesn't involve the expenses of on-ground reporting. In the case of Alt News, because the founders came from diverse backgrounds including technical backgrounds, we set up our own site without the help of any external developer. We did not take any remuneration for the first nine months. Hence, the only expense was server hosting fees which were minimal. For established organisations, the system is already in place, so the expenses will be limited to getting their staff trained in the skills required for fact-checking, and the regular salaries. Fact-check pieces are usually not like many of the pieces that come from web desks of various organisations, and need an investment of time for being able to produce credible fact-checking articles. However, since disinformation/misinformation is such a huge issue, there is no lack of audience. Moreover, with certain technical changes in the website, Google has also made it possible for fact-checkers to get more traffic than other regular articles. Moreover, in-house fact-checking experience will also help in internal fact-checking of information before it is put online or broadcasted on TV, thus saving media organisations from embarrassment of putting out non-factual information, and hence increased organisational credibility. All in all, fact-checking is a skill-set that is worth investing in for media organisations.
Even with fact-checks, it is difficult to convince audiences about truth because facts do not always conform to their beliefs. So what is the solution?The primary issue here is that of lack of digital empowerment, and inability of population at large to deal with the excess of information they're surrounded by in the age of social media. At Alt News, we have devised a three-pronged approach to this issue - journalistic, educational and technological. The journalistic initiative creates awareness about the issue of misinformation, and also helps in keeping politicians and political parties in check regarding the propaganda they put out. We at Alt News have observed that in the
two-and-a-half years that we have existed, regular patrons of Alt News have become far more critical towards the information they receive and are willing to question despite their own political or religious or social-cultural biases. However, the initiative that we believe will be most beneficial as far as reaching the wider population is concerned is educational. The solution is to create courses for different levels -- from middle school to high school to colleges. Technology companies have to do their bit to provide tools which can be used to check authenticity of the information in an easy manner.
In that context, is fact-checking worth it?
Yes, fact-checking even though on its own, cannot increase the digital awareness of an entire population, and the entire process is a rather slow process, especially with the government being a source of disinformation itself and having no interest in making any policy changes which could lead to greater digital empowerment of the population, the process of fact-checking is still absolutely essential to keep track of the problem, and constantly remind the people who are in position of power as to how much of a risk it is for a functional democracy. And as pointed out earlier, there's a slow change happening where more and more people are now interacting with fact-checking websites, and acknowledge that they're indeed surrounded by information which needs cross-checking.
What are the tech innovations that you see in detecting fake news?
There are many tech-innovations that can alleviate the situation of misinformation. Firstly, what is needed is a robust reporting system for misinformation across various social media platforms and chat apps such as WhatsApp. Currently, only Facebook has a reporting functionality for misinformation.
Secondly, technological innovation can help fact-checkers by automating certain elements of fact-checking, and using technology to detect the possibility of a piece of information being genuine/ingenuine. These tools would be for consumption by journalists and not people at large. They will fasten the process of fact-checking. However, since fact-checking cannot be completely automated, hence one should always exercise caution when it comes to believing technological solutions that claim to detect 'all' fake news.
Thirdly, apps can be created in partnership with fact-checking websites, where the already fact-checked stories get automatically disbursed to those who are receiving misinformation. That is the primary idea behind the Alt News app.
What do fact-checkers have to do to keep pace?
There's a deluge of misinformation on a daily basis on social media, and it spikes during elections and events which tend to capture the national attention -- such as the Balakot strike, Pulwama attack and the current situation in Kashmir. Fact-checking involves three processes -- Monitoring, Research and Documentation. We often have to let go certain stories because of lack of staff strength, and no ground presence of reporters. We concentrate on creating credible stories around the most viral misinformation as opposed to volume. The idea being that as more people read credible fact-check stories, they will start to question the information that they receive on social media and chat apps.
How do you plan to scale fake news detection/ fact-checking and what skillsets are required for the same?
We plan to scale our education efforts at this point in time, so as to create a community of people who are able to fact-checking and who can volunteer in various aforementioned aspects of fact-checking. For a non-profit body like Alt News which is completely dependent on grants and donations, we can only have a limited staff strength. Hence it is important for organisations like us to create a community around us who volunteer around various issues from journalistic to technological. We are hoping to get a grant which will help us expand our training endeavours to multiple journalism schools, colleges with development courses, and also colleges that teach courses such as B.Ed.
Nisha Ramchandani is the principal author of 'The Future of Work' series.
Published Date: Sep 20, 2019 03:09 PM | Updated Date: Sep 20, 2019 06:09 PM IST