Fact checkers in India face threats and imprisonment for fighting misinformation

Fact checkers in India face threats and imprisonment for fighting misinformation


Hunched over laptops in small cubicles, a group of Indian fact-checkers are at the forefront of a war on misinformation, braving online abuse and legal threats.

India has the largest number of certified fact-checking organizations in the world, but many feel outnumbered and outnumbered in a country of hundreds of millions of internet users and a climate of rising religious intolerance, hate speech, and declining freedom of the press.

BOOM Live is among the organizations that methodically debunk some of the tsunamis of untruths, but their efforts can feel like a drop in the bucket.

“It’s an unequal fight,” Jency Jacob, editor-in-chief of BOOM Live, told AFP in the company’s cramped office in a disused industrial complex in Mumbai.

“Fact checkers will always be the underdogs fighting this out … with limited resources.”

On a work day in October, Jacob huddled with his small team while an air conditioner circulated cool air and a generator hummed in the background.

The team scoured WhatsApp groups – a leading source of misinformation in India – and scoured the internet for potential stories to debunk: a politician claimed religious minorities were the biggest users of condoms; Rumors the central bank misplaced millions worth of banknotes; Footage showing a political party rally attracted fewer people than claimed.

– ‘harassment’ –

BOOM, which launched in 2016 and has 15 fact-checkers across India, operates in a country where hundreds of millions of smartphones, low data costs and a lack of digital literacy have accelerated the spread of internet untruths.

Even under Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi, press freedom is under increasing attack in the world’s largest democracy, activists say.

India fell eight places this year to 150 out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders.

Fact checkers are no exception. They say they are experiencing increasing levels of malicious trolling and abuse online, particularly when they target posts aimed at inciting religious hatred.

Geeta Seshu, co-founder of India’s media watchdog Free Speech Collective, points the finger at a motivated right-wing and vigilante group who know they’ve been caught.

“(They are) concerned that they (the fact-checkers) have been very successful and very quick in pointing out the type of disinformation and fake news that is being spread,” Seshu told AFP.

A growing number of fact-checkers face “targeted harassment and threats of litigation,” Enock Nyariki of the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) at the Poynter Institute in the United States told AFP.

In June, Mohammed Zubair, co-founder of fact-checking organization Alt News and a prominent thorn in the side of the Modi government, was jailed after an anonymous Twitter user accused him of insulting a Hindu god in a four-year-old tweet.

Amid a barrage of abuse from right-wing activists, he was granted bail weeks later after fighting a stack of cases that saw him shuttle between different courts.

Pratik Sinha, Alt News’ other co-founder, said the lawsuit, along with a series of libel allegations, has increased the financial burden on his organization, which is funded entirely by donations.

Sinha claimed those who donated money feared retribution after a fintech firm that managed the payment gateway to receive donations shared donor details with police following Zubair’s arrest.

“Many (donors) have asked, ‘Is there any way we could give you money indirectly?'” Sinha told AFP.

– “Psychological Effects” –

India, with a population of 1.4 billion people, has 17 IFCN-certified fact-checking organizations, the most of any country. The United States, by comparison, has 12.

But the proliferation of misinformation — in hundreds of regional languages ??— has massively outpaced the growth of fact-checking operations.

The consequences of viral misinformation can be deadly. In 2018, dozens of people were killed in a series of lynchings that shook the country after false rumors of kidnapping children on smartphones were spread.

A 2019 Microsoft study states that there are more internet hoaxes and untruths in India than in the rest of the world. It showed that 64 percent of Indians had encountered fake news, compared to a global average of 57 percent.

As in other countries, Indian fact-checkers operate in an ecosystem where internet lies spread faster than the truth and posts spreading misinformation often get more traction than real news.

BOOM’s recent exposure of false reports of a coup in China – fueled by multiple Indian accounts as well as some mainstream TV channels – has highlighted the troubling reality of misinformation profiteers.

The baseless rumor gained so much traction that some online retailers began using the #Chinacoup hashtag to promote posts promoting furniture, cookware and home appliances, further fueling the lie.

With the pressure mounting, Seshu noted the “psychological impact” on fact-checkers, especially since the job often involves poring over graphic content for hours.

“It’s not easy,” Seshu said.

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