In India, break the fake news and run into the authorities

AHMEDABAD, India – Two men are not candidates to work in the news business.

Neither had a background in journalism, but both were alerted to the rise of misinformation in India that followed. the rise of Narendra Modi as a Hindu nationalist Prime minister. To solve this problem, the men, both engineers, started Alt News in 2017.

Since then, Alt News has become a leading fact-checking company in India, debunking social media rumors that frequently appear on TV news, including rumors about child abduction gangs and false rumors on social networks. Muslims are spreading Covid. Hate speech calls have also become part of the site’s job as it targets viral posts that increase sectarian tension and that sometimes. promote mob violence to attack innocent people.

Led by its founders, Mohammed Zubair and Pratik Sinha, Alt News has criticized supporters and officials of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party for their statements aimed at minorities.

But in the face of growing concerns about the independence and freedom of the media in India, Mr. Zubair reached out to the authorities. He was arrested He is charged with hurting religious sentiments and is being investigated by police after anonymous critics and BJP officials accused him of sowing public unrest.

Mr Zubair, 40, said in an interview: “Those in power want to silence me for exposing their propaganda, lies and hate campaigns. “They want to scare other journalists and activists by targeting me.”

Mr. Zubair, a Muslim, said that instead of amplifying misinformation and hate speech, he was trying to highlight them so authorities could act. However, he remains concerned for his family’s safety this summer as #arrestzubair trended on Twitter. He temporarily banned his children from riding bicycles outside and from going to school.

Media landscape in India begin changing when Mr. Modi came to power in 2014. His party saw the potential to reach voters directly through social media and spent millions of dollars to create public awareness on platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook.

Critics say that participation and later attempts at imitation from other political parties, lacks the filtering of a traditional news organization, and targets millions of people who are using the Internet for the first time.

Mr. Sinha, then a software engineer in Ahmedabad in the state of Gujarat, who began to peel off misleading photos. He is not the first in his family to take on Mr. Modi’s role; His parents are activists sorry for Mr. Modi for not doing enough to stop violence against Muslims during the deadly 2002 Gujarat riots, when he was prime minister of the state.

Around the same time in Bangalore, Mr. Zubair, an engineer from a farming family, was also amazed at the growing spread of misinformation among the Indian community. His first attempt at addressing the issue was by satire, creating a social media account that parodied a leader of India’s ruling party. His thoughts captivated the audience, and soon he caught sight of Mr. Sinha.

They set up Sinha’s home office in Ahmedabad, slowly expanding their team to more than a dozen people, including media-sourced fact-checkers and video producers. Sinha’s mother, Nirjhari Sinha, who used to run a non-profit organization, also joined Alt News, which publishes content in English and Hindi and has attracted about 80 million page views so far. now. It is non-partisan and non-sectarian.

“They are a consistent and thorough voice in debunking myths and verifying facts,” says Anant Nath, editor of Caravan, a monthly magazine. “They are doing very important work to establish the accuracy of the public.”

Alt News is among more than a number of websites that have emerged in India over the last decade to combat misinformation that is spreading across the internet. “The mainstream media has failed to refute these stories,” said Jency Jacob, managing editor of BOOM, another Indian fact-checking website. “In India, misinformation often tends at worst to build hatred towards certain vulnerable sections of society.”

And the job is only getting harder and harder. Government data shows the number of cases of “fake news” and “rumors” in India has nearly tripled, even as social media companies take steps to curb the spread of misinformation. Sinha, 40, said that while it is difficult to find the source of much of the bad news, all political parties use it to further their political agendas. “But the biggest beneficiary is the BJP – as much as one could say,” he said.

Earlier this year, Mr. Zubair highlighted comments by a BJP official that many Muslims consider offensive to the Prophet Muhammad. The incident became a diplomatic embarrassment for Mr. Modi after Muslim nations demanded an apology, which the official offered. Mr. Zubair also called extreme Hindus who urged the killing of Muslims.

BJP spokesman Tom Vadakkan denied that the party benefits from misinformation, adding that Alt News itself has faced similar allegations. In response, the founders of Alt News say they are providing a public service by removing bogus claims.

Some critics say Alt News employees are not journalists – four of the 14 have journalism degrees – and point to Mr. Zubair’s opinionated and sometimes abrasive tweets as evidence. . This summer, Mr. Zubair was jailed after an anonymous Twitter user, citing a tweet from 2018, accused him of insulting a Hindu god and hurting religious sentiments. He was eventually released on bail but only after being dragged from courtroom to courtroom, marching in front of the media in a pile of cases that made his release difficult. He is still under investigation in that case and for other complaints that he caused unrest with his tweets.

But despite this disturbance to Alt News, run by the founders’ nonprofit, the Pravda Media Foundation, backers stand firm. Funding contributions to the site have remained steady, through donations averaging $12 a month per person.

“What keeps Alt News going are small donations. This is what scares them,” Sinha said of the site’s critics.

The control of the Indian news media in India has come under scrutiny again after hostile bid for New Delhi Television, an independent store called NDTV. Many observers fear an editorial line is compromised if the bidder, Gautam Adani, Asia’s richest man and a friend of Mr. Modi, gets a majority stake.

At Alt News, work continued as usual despite pending cases for Mr. Zubair. The organization has purchased an office in Ahmedabad and has opened an office in Kolkata. A book on misinformation is being released.

At the Ahmedabad office on a recent morning, Mr. Zubair, Mr. Sinha and the rest of the team gathered to discuss news and information to watch for, prioritizing what could potentially cause harm. harmful. They scour WhatsApp groups for potential customers. Ms. Sinha worked with an Alt News financial accountant.

Nearby, another employee, Kinjal Parmar, replayed a viral video of a mob brutally beating a man, frame by frame. Soon after, she reaffirmed the conclusion her colleagues had reached: The footage was about a personal dispute, not about the behavior of a Muslim man. Next, she posted an article on Alt News to correct the recording, reducing the possibility of the video sparking community tension.

Ms Parmar, who trained as a journalist, said no special skills are needed to be a fact-checker, other than an eye to spot what’s wrong. She said work is a mission for her.

“Our job requires giving every citizen the right to correct information,” she said. “And in an age of so much fake news, it becomes even more important in a democracy like India.”

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