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India innovators debate how to handle fake news

India innovators debate how to handle fake news

Elyssa Pachico | March 17, 2017

Indian journalists have seen firsthand what kinds of problems may be caused by the spread of unverified news. Last year, rumors that went viral on WhatsApp sparked panic over a non-existent salt shortage, alongside false reports that new currency bills were embedded with tracking devices, as the Indian Express reported.

Journalists, tech workers and others came together to share ideas on combatting the spread of fake news during a recent discussion facilitated by New Delhi-based media news site Medianama and business news outlet LiveMint.

As Medianama reported in a multi-part series, attendees shared the following suggestions on how media, technology companies and the government can approach this problem:

1. Understand there’s more than one type of fake news.

ICFJ Knight Fellow Nasr ul Hadi pointed out that it may be helpful to distinguish between different categories of misinformation, which he defined as follows:

a.) User-generated misinformation: Hadi described this as essentially “rumors or citizen journalism that has gotten it wrong.”

b.) Publisher-endorsed misinformation: In this case, Hadi said, it’s the “publisher getting information wrong.” This can happen in myriad ways, from poor sourcing to reporting without corroborating material.

c.) Organized misinformation: This consists of publications or news sites set up specifically to produce false news stories, or propaganda campaigns deliberately intended to mislead the public.

Making these distinctions would better inform the strategies that the media, tech and government sectors develop to deal with false news stories, Hadi argued.

"Publishers, no matter how sophisticated, will not be able to counter directly the snowball that is rolling towards them, which is why there will not be a single solution," he said. "There will be a portfolio of solutions speaking to multiple sources of misinformation."

For example, in the case of social media users spreading misinformation, technology platforms could take on more responsibility by “scoring” or verifying users in some way, Hadi said, an argument echoed by others during the event.

2. Understand why fake news can be produced and disseminated so successfully.

Hadi pointed out that the very nature of a serious media organization — versus one that is set up to misinform — puts them at a disadvantage. Unlike websites that make money off of making misinformation go viral, news sites need to put in significantly more time, effort and resources into producing stories that may or may not be widely read.

A “falsity-spreading organization,” Hadi said, needs far fewer people and far less sophisticated technology to pump out content. Another advantage is that many fake news sites are “spreading stuff which speaks much more directly to human emotion,” he added, which helps the stories get widely read and shared.

3. Keep up the pressure on technology platforms to do more.  

Multiple attendees spoke on the need for technology giants like Facebook to regulate the dissemination of false information.

“The only regulation that can and should happen is at a platform level,” argued Rajesh Lalwani, CEO of marketing company Scenario Consulting. “They have the means, the wherewithal and the responsibility. To expect that the media owners are going to do it is not going to happen. To expect the readers are not going to participate, is not going to happen. We don’t want the government to regulate. The answer is at the platform.”

ICFJ Knight Fellow H.R. Venkatesh echoed Lalwani, stating, “When it comes to fake news on social media, we need journalists and editors in Facebook.”

Snehashish Ghosh, an associate manager at Facebook in New Delhi, said he understood these concerns.

“I think one main thing we don’t want to be is arbiters of truth at any level, and that is clear to us,” he said. “Right now the way we deal with spam [is] the same way we’re trying to deal with hoaxes, with giving the users a clear reporting mechanism [for flagging problematic stories].”

What do you think media, tech and government should be doing to combat fake news? Let us know at IJNet’s Facebook Forum.

Nasr ul Hadi works with media organizations in India to improve access to quality information and journalism, by developing and expanding the use of new technologies and digital-led best practices. Learn more about his work as an ICFJ Knight Fellow here.

H.R. Venkatesh has more than 15 years of experience as a journalist across roles in reporting, editing and anchoring. He is a former fellow at the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism and the founder of NetaData, an Indian political news site. He is a 2017 ICFJ Knight Fellow in India.

Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via vishwaant avk.

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