The challenges of combating misinformation in India

The diversity of language, culture and politics in India only makes the task of fact-checking more difficult.

By Rahul Namboori

The post-pandemic world is expected to be more challenging in comparison to the one we knew before 2020.

The volume and penetration of misinformation in India over the last two years have reached staggering numbers, becoming an even greater cause for concern. According to one study, over a year and a half into the pandemic, India emerged as the biggest source of COVID-19 misinformation, with one in every six pieces of fake information coming from the country.

Fact Crescendo, working in 15 languages in six countries, has been debunking this flood of misinformation diligently. In the first two months of 2022, our fact-checkers battled a plethora of false news related to the third wave of COVID-19, highly-polarised five state-assembly elections, and the Russia-Ukraine war.

Home challenges

Given the sheer number of internet users (825.30 million) and poor digital literacy rate (virtually nonexistent among more than 90% of India’s population), verifying all the misinformation rampant on social media is a mammoth task. The diversity of language, culture and politics in India only makes the task more difficult.

For example, India has more than 2,800 registered political parties. Hence, it is not surprising that Indian elections are highly polarised events where political parties divided on religious and ideological basis clash with each other and spawn mis/disinformation.

Administratively, India is a federal union comprising 28 states and eight union territories, which are largely created on a linguistic basis. Other than Hindi and English, the Indian constitution recognizes 22 regional languages. The number of speakers of many of these regional languages exceeds the total population of many Western countries. Hence, debunking false information in one or two languages does not help in reaching a wider population of the country.

Here, Fact Crescendo has an advantage as it publishes fact checks in nine regional languages. Our regional teams have their ears to the ground and pick up claims relevant to their area which the national media may not cover. Publishing them in regional languages makes sure that they reach a wider population and also help in curbing misinformation at its source.

In addition to publishing articles, we regularly present fact checks in varied formats like video, image, story/status, and WhatsApp broadcasts. Our WhatsApp FactLine, Facebook groups and social media accounts receive a large number of fact-checking requests every day. Fact Crescendo has also contributed to the LMU Munich’s AI4Dignity project, which is developing an artificial intelligence tool that can detect, decelerate and remove online extreme speech.

Reporters Without Borders designated India as “one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists trying to do their job properly.” India ranked 142 among 180 countries on the 2021 World Press Freedom Index. However, the Indian government disagrees with these conclusions and rankings.

Last year, former Union Minister for Information Technology Ravi Shankar Prasad wrote a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg accusing Facebook of being “biased against Right-wing” and partnering with “shady (fact-checking) organizations with no credibility.” Such incidences may undermine the unbiased work of fact-checkers and damage their credibility as neutral sources.

In addition, the government also implemented new information technology rules for social media, digital news, and over-the-top platforms. Although, at least 10 lawsuits have challenged the constitutional validity of these rules.

A step beyond

Beginning our expansion outside India, Fact Crescendo started its operations in Sri Lanka in 2019. Then we began working in Myanmar, Afghanistan, Cambodia and Bangladesh. We have successfully covered crucial elections in Sri Lanka and Myanmar. Our fact-checkers have been working even during the crisis in Myanmar and Afghanistan, risking their own lives and the lives of their families to ensure the fight against misinformation continues in these countries.

Fact Crescendo is committed to increasing its efforts towards combating fake news with cutting-edge technology in the upcoming years.