Fake news is a global menace and news media companies must fight it, Pratyush Ranjan, senior editor at Jagran New Media in India, told INMA members.
During a members-only Webinar on Monday, Ranjan led INMA members through a better understanding of the importance of dispelling fake news, especially in today’s COVID-19 context. Ranjan shared insights into emerging patterns, institutional frameworks, the role of the government, social media, the business model, and the way forward for South Asian publishers.
“Fake news is the biggest problem we are facing in the news industry right now,” Ranjan said. “Fake news is travelling faster than COVID.”
Fact checking includes a wide range of approaches of and practices and is required when fiction becomes fact and opinion lacks credibility. “Fake news is a global menace today,” Ranjan said.
How team Vishvas News works
Vishvas News is the fact-checking unit of Jagran New Media (JNM), created to support Jagran’s mission to share factual and credible content. It works as a bridge between verified, credible, factual information, and common citizens.
The importance of dispelling fake news means news publishers must break the chain, focusing on three areas, Ranjan said:
- Awareness: Think before you share, forward, or like a post.
- Empowerment: Train citizens to identify and debunk misinformation.
- Support: The fact-check community is growing at a hyper-local level.
The fact-checking unit is a separate desk with separate SOPs, editorial guidelines, and work ethics. The team does not take policy positions on the issues for which it is fact-checking.
“We have a strict code of conduct, guidelines, and social media policy for the team,” Ranjan said.
He led Webinar attendees through the entire process of how Vishvas News works in a typical day:
- Morning team meeting.
- Discussion on trending topics.
- Topic approval.
- Fact-checking begins.
- Investigation and story filing.
- Physical verification.
- Maker-checker process (fact-checking must be completed before the story can move forward).
- Final approval by the editor.
- Story published on Web site and social media.
The physical verification of facts is very important to Vishvas News, he said: “Whenever we get a quote, we cross-verify it, and then we can use it in the story and then our story is complete. We apply this process so our story can be 100% error-free.”
In addition, Vishvas partners with WhatsApp to counter COVID infodemic and with Twitter to identify fake tweets. It is associated with World Health Organization officials and with the Press Information Bureau to counter misinformation surrounding the pandemic. Vishvas is also a third-party Fact Check Partner with Facebook in India (operating in four languages) and with ByteDance (Helo and TikTok) for a limited number of posts in six languages.
Facebook displays a warning label showing a certain story has been determined to contain false information by independent fact-checkers. The use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) is very important in fighting misinformation and exploitative content on Facebook. The AI detects near-exact duplicates, then aligns and verifies for misinformation.
Ranjan gave one example of how this was used in relation to face masks. In one image, a company’s name as well as a warning label was visible on the mask. In near-exact images, the name and warning label were removed, and/or the color of the mask was changed. AI detects these manipulated images.
Examples of fact-checked COVID-19 stories
The team went to medical and health experts to obtain the facts to determine if COVID-19 stories shared on social media were true. When a story has been proven fake by the Vishvas News team, an icon is splashed across the post showing that the story is false. Such stories included:
- Inhaling the steam of orange peels and sea salt will kill coronavirus: False.
- Experts warn against self-medicating COVID-19 using aspirin, lemon, and honey home remedy: False.
- HIV-infected blood in Pepsi Cola resurfaces: False.
- Lemons are 10,000 times stronger than chemotherapy: False.
The Vishvas team had already debunked the HIV story six months back but fact-checked again to reiterate that it was fake news.
“When we talk about COVID-19, the misinfodemic debunked by Vishvas News, you can see that we have so far debunked 300-plus stories,” Ranjan said. He shared a chart showing the different types of stories surrounding coronavirus the team had fact-checked.
Deepfakes, the AI of fake news
“Another big issue in the fake news industry is deepfakes,” Ranjan said. The term is derived from a combination of the words “deep learning” and “fake,” and is a form of Artificial Intelligence.
Deepfakes are falsified videos made by means of deep learning. The danger is the technology can be used to make people believe something is real when it is not. An example was a recent video of Alec Baldwin playing President Donald Trump in a satire skit. A deepfake replaced Baldwin’s face with Trump’s to make it appear as if the video were, in fact, Trump speaking.
“What deepfake means is that seeing will no longer be believing,” Ranjan said. “AI is reaching the point where it will be virtually impossible to detect audio and video representations of people saying things they never said.”
Blockchain-based verifications, reverse video searches, and advanced AI training for fact checkers are potential ways to combat deepfakes, he said: “All these tools are being used by people to create fake news, so we need to understand the AI tools to debunk the deepfakes.”
Ranjan shared a few tell-tale signs of deepfakes:
- Unnatural blinking patterns.
- Distorted facial features.
- Inconsistencies in lighting or across images.
- Incongruities between speech and mouth movements.
India’s digital space
The most striking thing about India’s Internet users is their sheer number, Ranjan said. A total of 22 official languages have entered the digital space in a big way, and Internet users in India were up 29% in March 2019 over the year before, totalling 637 million.
“The challenge in India is the lack of digital literacy,” he continued. The Internet adoption rates are higher in Hindi and other Indic languages than in English. “This data shows that in the coming years, the flow of misinformation in Hindi and Indic languages is going to be huge, because of the flow of new users being added.”
Ranjan shared a chart that shows the behaviour groups of various Internet users in India. The user base of mainstream digital consumers is far larger than that of enthusiasts or sophisticates, and those users will largely consume free content through smartphones.
“The problem of fake news lies largely in these two categories: the digital enthusiast and digital mainstream, because here the content is free and through a smartphone without any fact-checking. We need to find a solution for how to reach out to these people.”
The urgency of fighting misinformation
Reaching out to first-time, new Internet users, and reluctant learners is the main challenge. Making them aware of the different dimensions of fake news is a must, as well as training them about the basic tools of fact-checking to break the chain of misinformation at the user end.
“So many people don’t understand the problem,” Ranjan said. “We need to make them aware of the real threat coming to them in the coming years.”
Jagran New Media is taking certain steps in this direction. Under its Media Literacy Drive, Jagran started a fact-check awareness campaign to reach out directly to citizens with the dangers of misinformation. This was used during India’s general elections to train more than 60,000 people.
JNM did another fact-check awareness campaign in February about COVID misinformation. The team visited six cities and trained 1,200 people who went back and trained more than 60,000 people in their communities.
“We saw that was working,” Ranjan said. This campaign had a total reach of more than 11 million people. Vishvas News now has a pool of more than 3,000 fact champions in 12 cities, and the team is highly active conducting fact-check training in their cities.
Vishvas also conducted a series of Webinars to connect people with local health experts, doctors, government officials, and fact checkers.
“We want them to be safe from COVID and COVID misinformation, both,” Ranjan said.
Vishvas’ fact-checking started in Hindi and English first, and has expanded its base in nine other languages.
Business model of fighting fake news
“We are trying to be united with many other partners to take the battle against misinformation to the next level,” Ranjan said. These partners include:
- Major companies.
- Educational institutions.
- Professional institutions.
- Law enforcement agencies.
Corporations need a fact-checking system, he added. In just one of many examples, a fake WhatsApp message destroyed 71% of an Indian e-commerce firm’s market value.
“You can see how one piece of misinformation, how it’s going to hurt a company’s future in just minutes or hours. Our objective is to support the companies to respond quickly to such situations with a complete fact check on fake news.”
Vishvas offers support via training sessions to these companies, as well as other support on an individual basis as needed. Government support is also an important requirement.
The way forward for publishers
The Vishvas News model can be replicated by other publishers, Ranjan said. Jagran New Media will provide support to any publisher to set up a similar fact-checking unit in its newsroom: “We need to join hands to defeat the demon of fake news across the region.”
He encouraged publishers interested to reach out to JNM via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.