Disinformation on Whatsapp in India and the fact-checking initiative Boom

This webinar on Disinformation on Whatsapp in India and the fact-checking initiative Boom was held on 08/11/2018

Presenter : Karen Rebelo – Deputy Editor at BOOM

Karen is Deputy Editor at BOOM live, one of the two fact-checking initiatives in India to be certified by the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN). Her specialisation includes spotting and debunking fake images and videos. She is a former Reuters journalist and has covered the resources sector in the UK and the Indian stock market and private equity space. Karen also spearheads BOOM’s verification workshops for journalists as part of the Google News Initiative.

In India, viral misinformation has become a core problem. Especially on Whatsapp, misleading content is now shared virally through end-to-end encrypted solutions.

Karen introduced her presentation with the following catchphrase “In India, velocity creates veracity”. In this country, the diffusion of disinformation and rumours already have had dramatic consequences. In summer 2018, around 25 people were lynched by local populations after being accused of child kidnapping, an assumption made after a doctored video allegedly showing children abductions went viral on Whatsapp.

Democratisation of Internet access through cheap data plans offered by telecommunication providers have recently allowed for dozens of thousands of Indians to go online for the first time. At the same time, it has also enabled new paths for news diffusion, including disinformation.

First, traditional media were not paying much attention to the diffusion of erroneous information on social media and Whatsapp. Simultaneously, trust and the perceived value of traditional media has been eroding as the democratisation of news sharing online increased. These weaknesses have been exploited by political parties, sharing agenda-driven content daily through trending hashtags, Facebook groups and Whatsapp groups.

Karen described the flow of disinformation in India as multifaceted and cross-media. For example, manipulated screenshots from Twitter go often viral on Whatsapp and end up on Facebook. Meanwhile, India has become the first video market, especially with Youtube, a platform that has a weak filtering process of information.

Journalists in India are not well trained to web fact-checking and the verification processes are still traditional. The spread of disinformation written in regional languages also increases the reach within local populations but makes it harder for the Hindi and English mainstream media to fact-check.

To counter this phenomenon, BOOM uses a data-driven approach to improve public discourse transparency. The initiative is one of the few in the country to be certified by the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN). The journalists track public and political speeches to debunk disinformation. To fact-check suspicious information shared trough Whatsapp, readers are invited to send messages on a dedicated helpline. Indeed, conversations on Whatsapp are end-to-end encrypted, and thus impossible to monitor. In order to work more efficiently, BOOM newsroom is working on building a database to mine disinformation based on the type of content, origin and frequency, to share automatically the pieces of information that have already been debunked.

A similar phenomenon of disinformation spreading on Whatsapp has been observed in Brazil, especially during the elections. In this country, it has been possible for journalists such as FirstDraft collaborative journalism initiative Comprova* to access Whatsapp customer service data to document the diffusion of disinformation. But as most of the groups are closed, infiltrating private conversations raises ethical issues for journalists and media organisation.

Until now, measures such as restricting the number of forwarded messages have had little impact, as they are easy to circumvent. More efficiently, the spreading of disinformation could be hampered by disclosing Whatsapp API to certified journalists for fact-checking purposes. Certainly, journalists should be trained to deal with online information, and actions of media literacy will make a difference.

* First draft full report on Brazilian elections is to be released in January. It will be presented in a future webinar.