Fake news thrives on social media in run-up to Indian polls

Published April 3, 2019
In India, Facebook has partnered with fact checkers and, like Twitter, ramped up efforts to block fake accounts. — AFP/File
In India, Facebook has partnered with fact checkers and, like Twitter, ramped up efforts to block fake accounts. — AFP/File

MUMBAI: Two weeks after a suicide bombing in India-occupied Kashmir killed 40 Indian policemen in February, a Facebook user called Avi Dandiya posted a live video in which he played a recording of a call purportedly involving India’s home minister, the president of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and an unidentified woman.

The trio could be heard talking about arousing nationalist sentiment ahead of India’s general election, with the BJP president allegedly saying: “We agree that for election, we need a war.”

Within 24 hours, one of Facebook’s fact-checking partners in India, BOOM, exposed Dandiya’s video as fake. An analysis on BOOM’s website said the video was created by splicing audio from older political interviews.

By the time Facebook took down the post, it had received more than 2.5 million views and 150,000 shares. There is no Indian law that specifically targets fake news, but police in New Delhi registered a case of forgery against Dandiya and an official said investigations were ongoing.

Still, four edited copies of Dandiya’s videos on Facebook were found last week with about 36,000 views. One on Google’s YouTube has been seen 2,800 times while another on Twitter has 22,000 views.

Messages and e-mails to Dandiya, an avid Facebook user who last appeared in a live video on March 23, went unanswered. The home ministry, the BJP president and the party’s information-technology chief did not respond to requests for comment.

The videos underline how social media companies are struggling with fake news in India despite saying they’ve taken steps to tackle the menace before India’s general election, which starts on April 11.

With 900 million people eligible to vote and an estimated half-a-billion with access to the internet, fake news can have an enormous impact on the election. Dandiya’s video, for example, could have seriously damaged Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP if enough people thought it was true.

Policing content has become a massive global problem for social media giants which have no template for consistently preventing online fake news or eliminating it.

Fierce internet disinformation battles gripped countries such as Brazil and Malaysia last year ahead of elections. Authorities in Indonesia and the EU, which are due to hold polls, have warned of the threat of fake news.

Fact checkers

In India, Facebook has partnered with fact checkers and, like Twitter, ramped up efforts to block fake accounts.

On Monday, Facebook said it had deleted 1,126 accounts, groups and pages in Pakistan and India for “inauthentic behaviour” and spamming, many linked to Congress party.

Read:Facebook takes sweeping action against networks in Pakistan, India for 'coordinated inauthentic behaviour'

Google has partnered with fact-checkers to train 10,000 journalists this year to better tackle fake news.

Facebook’s popular messaging app WhatsApp has launched newspaper and radio campaigns to deter the spread of misinformation.

Social media companies say they don’t remove all fake posts as that would jeopardise free speech. Facebook has said that circulation of posts which are debunked, or discovered to be fake, is reduced by more than 80 per cent.

Posts that violate Facebook’s community guidelines, including hate speech or content that could incite violence, are completely deleted, the company said, adding that Dandiya’s video came under that category.

But even when content has been identified as fake and removed, slightly modified versions of the same images, video or text can escape detection and spread further.

“This is a highly adversarial space, so we still miss things and won’t catch everything - but we’re making progress,” said a Facebook spokeswoman, who added that the overall volume of false news had been reduced on the platform.

Twitter and YouTube did not comment on Dandiya’s video.

Another fake post that went viral recently was on popular Indian student leader Kanhaiya Kumar, who was arrested and charged with sedition after a 2016 rally to commemorate the execution of a Kashmir fighter. Opposition parties said Kumar’s arrest by federal police was an attempt by authorities to curb free speech.

Some Facebook posts in February described Kumar as anti-India and showed his photo in front of a map that depicted some Indian states as part of Pakistan. Two Facebook fact-checkers in India investigated the posts and said the image was doctored.

Still, a month later, at least two copies of those posts on Facebook were found with 375 comments and 1,500 shares.

It was found that when debunked posts of Kumar were shared, an alert popped up with a link to the fact-checkers’ analysis. However, all four variants of Dandiya’s videos could be shared without such fake news alerts from Facebook.

Published in Dawn, April 3rd, 2019

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