India’s fight against fake news has a problem: More needs to be done on regional languages.

Reporters have been scrambling to debunk myths and hoaxes. But they can't just do that in English and Hindi.

The English-language homepage of Indian fact-checking site BoomLive. Photo by Victoria Milko.
The English-language homepage of Indian fact-checking site BoomLive. Photo by Victoria Milko.

Claims that your phone will explode if you accept calls from certain numbers, fake breaking news that GPS chips have been installed in new currency notes, and stories charting how Nostradamus predicted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rise to power. These are just a few examples of the fake WhatsApp messages being spread to more than 1.3 billion people living in India.

On the surface these messages may seem harmless, but there’s also a darker side to the proliferation of fake news in India.

“People are dying across the country from misinformation,” says Pratik Sinha, the founder of AltNews, one of the country’s largest fact-checking websites.

Sinha isn’t exaggerating. In May and June alone, at least six people died in India during attacks spurred by fake news that was spread via WhatsApp messages.

Violent vigilante groups have popped up across the country in response to fake news allegations, and religious tensions between Hindus and Muslims are on the rise in the lead-up to the 2019 elections.

But fake news in India isn’t going unchallenged.

Fighting the fakes

Starting out as part of a news network in 2014, BoomLive has debunked hundreds of fake news stories since morphing into a fact-checking network two years ago. It has also created a dedicated WhatsApp line for receiving tips about the latest fake news.

“A lot of fake news is easy to discern. It’s one thing to discern it — but it’s another thing to actually disprove it,” says BoomLive founder Govindraj Ethiraj. “It takes a lot of time, research and follow-up, making it tougher to establish the truth.”

BoomLive has also created what it calls “Fact Files” that viewers can consult in reference to recurring topics in the news, including women’s rights movements, minority religious groups, and politicians’ criminal records.

AltNews, which launched in early 2017, has been debunking fake news stories and photos circulating on the internet and WhatsApp, even finding that some photos published by the Indian Home Ministry were fake.

The handful of news sites and organizations working to combat fake news are doing what they can with the limited resources they have. But they also recognize a gap in their coverage: regional languages.

“Most of the fake news resides in regional languages,” says Karen Rebelo, an investigative reporter, fact-checker and copy editor at BoomLive. “And there is definitely an effort [in India] to roll out fact-checked news in regional languages.”

Most of both BoomLive and AltNews’ content is produced in English — a language only spoken by about 10% of India’s population. But both websites have also set up dedicated Hindi pages, extending their fact-checking news to the more than 60% of the population that speaks the language.

But even with these efforts, 20 other official languages are still be excluded, something that Rebelo says can be attributed to a lack of resources.

“This didn’t happen by design,” she says. “We want to expand to other languages, but it comes down to resources — which are something we don’t have a lot of.”

Fact checking site AltNews has a page dedicated to Hindi. Photo by Victoria Milko.

Addressing language limitations

Google News Lab recently announced that it will be conducting a five-day training session with journalists from across India, working with international experts and local fact-checking outfits such as BoomLive and AltNews.

“To ensure that this program can reach journalists from around the country we’re planning to train more than 200 trainers in seven languages — English, Hindi, Kannada, Tamil, Telugu, Marathi and Bengali — who will then go on to train 8,000 journalists by the end of 2019,” says Irene Jay Liu, Google’s News Lab lead for Asia-Pacific. “[It] will be, by far, our largest effort yet.”

The latest initiative isn’t Google News Lab’s first in India. Over the past two years it has trained more than 6,000 journalists in English and Hindi — but Liu says the company realized that more needed to be done.

“We wanted to go deeper — focus on fact-checking and verification, and focus on creating scale — training in many more languages, conducted by Indian journalists with a curriculum co-created by local experts,” she says.

Local partners, such as BoomLive, say they’re excited about the partnership, but also recognize that difficulties that lay ahead.

“It’s challenging, as we haven’t done anything of this scale,” says Rebelo. “This is our way of contributing to public discourse.”

And with the elections looming, Rebelo says, Indian journalists’ fact-checking and fake-news-busting skills will be put to the test.

“With the election we are well aware of what’s going to come our way in terms of misinformation,” she says.

“We are not saying we are going to completely eliminate fake news. But we are working with Google to be able to arm journalists with tools that will enable them to identify fake news for years to come.”

Victoria Milko is a multimedia editor at Frontier Myanmar based in Yangon. She is a member of the Women Photojournalists of Washington and the National Press Photographers Association. Follow Victoria Milko on Twitter.

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