The Federation of State Humanities Councils in the United States of America started a programme called ‘Democracy and the Informed Citizen’ in 2018. Under the program, 49 humanities council were given funds to examine the critical role of journalism in the preservation of the idea of the electoral process and by extension, of the idea of a sustainable democracy. This dependence of the success of democracy on ethical and appropriate journalism holds much more worth now, given the impact that social media and connectivity have had on our lives.
In about two months from now, Indians would be glued to their television sets, waiting to hear about the fate of their preferred politicians. But for the next two months, these same Indians would have to pay back the debt that they owe to the sanctity of our country’s democracy: their duty to vote. They have to walk to the nearest booths and cast their one vote to the candidate that promises them the right things.
The affirmation of the feasibility of said promised and the candidates’ competence to fulfill said promises is where the electoral crowd relies on the so-called watchdog of justice, the media. This fourth pillar of democracy bears the duty of informing the electorate with information that would be relevant and helpful to the voters when they step into that booth. For example, when Rahul Gandhi proposes the idea of a universal basic income of ₹6000 rupees per month, the responsibility of the mainstream media is to not just debate on how this proposal might impact the election scene in the coming days, but also discuss the feasibility of such a proposal and its impact on the population.
All of us, at one point of time, have been part of that WhatsApp group which is filled with forwards and links that seem shady enough for us to ignore, but we either lack the conviction or the resources to help convince ourselves of that particular claim’s falsity. This piece shall list a few sources which might help a confused user confirm the validity of a claim because in the few weeks following the elections, fake news and fake claims would gain the upper hand over the ignorance of the electorate easily.
With a section on the Modi government’s 48 months in power, Factly has managed to fact-check a lot of the government’s claims. From their piece on fact-checking the government’s assertions in the banking sector to their work on putting the leadership’s claims of their programmes against tuberculosis to test, Factly has managed to clear the mist that has come to surround the actual statistics.
For example, the BJP government published an infographic that made four claims about the enabling of legislators in fighting corruption. Factly ran a piece on the same, checking those four claims and presenting a detailed analysis of the same.
With the environment of fake news prevalent today and biased agendas being broadcast on our prime-time television, the idea of more fact-checking websites has been gaining pace. Newer and newer such initiatives have started taking up space on the internet to provide for fact-checking through elaborate and different methodologies to confirm various claims. A couple more of such websites that users can rely on are FactChecker and FactCrescendo.
Although stating news-media as a reliable source is a fire that might burn my own hands, NewsLaundry has managed to stand out from a lot of its mainstream counterparts. One of the major reasons for this media house’s success in terms of authenticity and their affection towards facts lies in the standard of their ownership. While the major newspapers and media giants in the country continue to be owned by conglomerates and influential figures, like Shobhana Bhartia for the Hindustan Times Group, the Marans for the Sun, and Chandan Mitra for the Pioneer, NewsLaundry has managed to sustain under a subscriber model for now.
Unlike its peers, which rely heavily on advertisers and its investors to keep them alive, NewsLaundry makes its earnings from the subscriptions it sells. Although this makes it restrictive only to people who can afford to pay a periodic price, it does provide a fresher and unbiased perspective into the daily news from across the country.
For example, Pune Mirror, a tabloid owned by the Times group, recently claimed that a construction worker arrested by the ATS was related to the Pulwama attacks. Other media giants like the Daily Pioneer and Lok Satta soon jumped the bandwagon on claiming the same. In contrast to this, NewsLaundry released a piece that described the entire process that led to the birth of this claim and how it is not true.
Started by a software engineer, this website has contributed strongly to the process of fact-checking the Indian social media as well as the Indian news media. Another thing that makes me put Alt News up as a reliable source here is their extremely detailed transparency, as far as an online media platform is considered. If one goes through their website, it won’t take too long to discover their openness about the steps they follow to fact-check their claims. With separate tabs for the methodology followed to fact-check a claim, the technique that they use to source any of their claims as well as their transparency towards their funding, Alt News surely puts forward a strong example for the mainstream media giants in the country.
One of their more recent pieces, for example, works to debunk the fact that had been making rounds on social media for a while. At one of Rahul Gandhi’s rallies at Wayanad, the participants were alleged to have raised Pakistan’s national flag. Alt News ran a piece describing, in detail, as to how the flag that was used was from the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) and how similar claims had been made in the past too.
In today’s world, where social media reigns supreme and media houses have either moved their workings to the internet, have chosen a path of struggle and decline, or have treaded a path between the two, an economy based on quality has turned into one that is run by quantity. In a market that strives on consumer attention, it is almost natural to assume that media entities would transform into more of a sales force than a group of journalists aiming for better standards. Obviously, there are exceptions to this, but this is the easy way to make money online now.
Additionally, in a pressure to release fresher news every day, the process to fact-check and prepare the piece in a better way starts to suffer. In contrast to this, the country’s print media, although suffering economically, seems to hold its journalistic standards to a higher measure than most of the electronic and online media houses. Although newspapers like The Hindu, or The Pioneer have widely been criticised for respectively taking left-leaning as well as pro-BJP stands, a lot of their pieces do provide unbiased and fair opinions at times.
Furthermore, I agree that newspapers are no less culprits than the online players, especially when their content has, at times, reflected the ideologies of their respective owners. But, in hindsight, given their limited power on the Indian consumer, print media, especially local-run newspapers, seem to provide more honest stories and more accurate facts than their internet-savvy counterparts.
Finally, even if you, the consumer of the news, steps out to fight the battle against misinformation, armed with the above resources, the onus of not contributing to the vicious circle of misinformation falls on you. At an event held by the South Dakota Humanities Council, Washington Post’s executive editor, Martin Baron, said, “if all they (information sources) do is reinforce your point of view, you should be highly suspicious of them, because that is their purpose.” This is, what I feel, where our duty, as consumers of news comes into play. In an adrenaline-fueled frenzy that follows the moment we see something agreeing to our political ideology online, we don’t hesitate to retweet or share it around.
This way, we are unknowingly contributing to a culture that further thrives on the desire of being agreed with. A lot of outlets mentioned above state the methodologies they follow while debunking various claims and these processes can easily be put to use by a regular consumer. From running a basic Google search on the topic, to using the feature of reverse image search, consumers can begin contributing to the dismantling of this toxic culture in place. Additionally, this video explains the kind of thought process that you can follow before you decide on resharing an item that agrees with you.
In times like today, when we have submitted ourselves to the technology around us, we must also ponder on the extent of its power. We must acknowledge that objectivity is a myth and begin looking at every piece of news with skepticism and use the resources at our dispatch to stop this exploitation of our intellectual selves. Only then, can we, the world’s biggest democracy, provide for a truly fair and free platform.