As India reported nearly 379,257 COVID positive cases and 3645 deaths (as of April 29), news alerts went off about how Maharashtra had decided to extend its lockdown. Instead of looking it up online, I did what most of us would do. I checked my messages. I desperately wanted to know, what were my neighbours saying?
My society’s WhatsApp group never lets up: there are constant pings and pongs as people continue to share information about Pune Municipal Corporation Helplines, ambulance drivers, hospital beds, oxygen cylinders, medicines, doctors giving free consultation, tiffin services, vaccine centres, curfew hours and general tips on how to deal with COVID. What happens if you test positive? How do you quarantine at home? How many times should you check your SPO2 levels? What is double-masking? How can you boost your immunity? Is there a new variant that spreads faster and is resistant to the vaccine?
Now more than ever, we are extremely dependent on our community for first-hand knowledge. Our family, friends, neighbours, local committees and members of societies have become primary sources of information and sometimes, misinformation. Misinformation occurs when someone shares something with you without knowing whether it’s true or not. There is no intent behind it, just basic ignorance. Misinformation is inevitable. In fact, even the World Health Organisation (WHO) is campaigning to free a pandemic-struck world of the scourge of misinformation.
The government, on the other hand, has become a source of disinformation. While 10 states in India account for 80% of all active COVID cases, crematoriums are overflowing, patients are dying due to lack of oxygen, vaccines are in short supply and record-breaking numbers continue to rise every day, our leaders are undercounting deaths and crying foul about propaganda.
Disinformation is a deliberate strategy to share false information with the intent to mislead. What lies behind it is sheer malice and an opportunity to gain something, like your vote in the next election.
You already know all of this, so let’s forget about politics and focus on the urgent matter of misinformation. Regimes rise and fall every day, but your loved ones need you to act now. Our parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, spouses, kids or friends may be lying in the ICU, so it’s time we figured out how to fact-check the news so we know exactly what to do if the crisis hits us.
What are professional fact-checkers? These are people that are hired by newspapers, magazines and websites to ascertain the veracity of their content. I once read that the former child artist and lead actor of the Harry Potter series, Daniel Radcliffe, interned with the New Yorker in order to prepare for his role as a fact-checker in a play. Sure, his job mostly involved calling up a restaurant and fact-checking a review by a food critic but still, that’s some real commitment to Broadway.
With India falling to #142 on the Press Information Index, it isn’t surprising that citizens are taking up the mantle in a country that is one of the most dangerous for journalists to do their job. Fact-checking, therefore, is a must.
First of all, why do we need to fact-check the news? Because better information leads to informed decisions, which leads to a better world.
So let’s say you’re following an account on Twitter. Or you got a WhatsApp forward. Or a friend sent you a meme on Instagram. It generally helps when you start off as a sceptic on the internet. That makes it easier to keep your mind open to the possibility that any piece of news might be real or fake. This does not mean you become cynical about everything you come across but a healthy dose of suspicion is an essential tool when being present online.
1. Who is behind this information?
Who shared it with you? Why did they share it? What was their motive? Do they gain anything by it? Are they trustworthy, legitimate and credible?
2. What is the evidence backing their claims?
What is the claim itself? Is it a fact or is it an opinion? Are these claims backed by evidence? Is it is easy to cross-reference it with multiple sources or is it hard to track them down?
3. What do other sources say about these claims?
While researching the claim itself, do you find that other authorities are in agreement with this information or is there far too much controversy, debate and lack of corroboration to these claims?
Another interesting thing about fake news is the language itself. Look out for anything that is alarmist, provocative or outlandish. Be careful when reading something that is interesting, shareable or even makes you emotional. Anything that is meant to trigger you probably needs a closer look.
A simple way to start when you’re reading the news is by asking yourself: Does this make sense? That moment which you take to pause and reflect will itself lead you down the right path. When following up on different sources to investigate the story, make sure they have basic journalistic standards.
Psychologically, our minds are built in such a way that they will automatically accept any new piece of information as long as it conforms to our fundamental beliefs and reject any information that does not fit into our framework. This is known as perseverance of belief, a phenomenon that was first introduced by psychologists Lee Ross and Craig A. Anderson. Our beliefs tend to be very rigid and will not alter in light of any challenging empirical data no matter how logical it is because it is far too devastating to change our beliefs.
This is why in times of crisis, people act irrational and fake news spreads like wildfire. Our ability to objectively analyse information is going to be tested even more in the coming months and you can try fact-checking as a mental exercise to gear up.
To shed some light on the age of misinformation, I sat down with Leila Badyari, a former editor at Youth Ki Awaaz and my contact person on the team who edited, proofread and fact-checked every single one of my stories. I asked her what had been the biggest takeaway from her time at YKA.
“Given the ‘current crisis’ in journalism,” she said, “One of the biggest takeaways from this experience was that narrative journalism should pave the way forward when it comes to disseminating information to the masses. Considering the amount of data available online, the mainstream media’s TRP-grabbing escapades and the silence on critical issues by our government, it is up to the people of this nation to speak up and burst the bubble of ignorance, and it is the responsibility of the press to amplify these stories.”
Of course, there’s a caveat to that idealistic philosophy: it’s easier said than done. Especially at a time when most media platforms do not offer writers the opportunity to speak their truth and those who do are often penalised.
“I strongly believe we need to pass the mic to people with lived experiences and let them share their truth – this has never been more important than in today’s climate of political polarisation, and criminalisation of expression in India,” she said.
On the driving forces behind misinformation, Leila tells me that WhatsApp forwards, tweets, memes and videos are dominating the market and competing to grab the most eyeballs and attract the largest audience. In the end, misinformation only serves one purpose: to please our political masters.
“As a rule of thumb, I always reference the news against some solid reliable news publications,” she explains when I asked her to describe her process of fact-checking stories. “One set of publications for local or Indian news and another for international news. I am wary of any information that has not been reported by these credible publications.”
“Secondly, always check the URL and domain name. Anything suspicious like a com.co is probably fake. Look into the quotes, and data/statistics made in any story. Ensure they can be collaborated by recognised and established research and news agencies. Also, make sure the sample sizes are reliable and reflect your demographic before you generalise.”
“Don’t take speeches out of context— this is something I have seen a lot in my time as an editor. Before you draw conclusions about what someone said, make sure you have all the information and the context,” Leila said.
Undoubtedly, some of you who are reading this right now will feel this is an awful lot of hard work just to safely read something online. But Leila agrees, we live in a dystopian era where falsehood is a currency. It may make us famous, popular and even beloved but what it will not bring us is honesty, integrity, morality -and most of all, a loved one back to life.
On a lighter note, what happens the next time your friend shares the news that Camilla Cabello and Shawn Mendez have broken up and then you find out that it’s just a rumour? Do you contact the writer and call them out on it? No. Your ultimate power as a consumer is to not share. Report it to the social media platform where you read it. Maybe it was a tweet from Just Jared and you can ask Twitter to take it down and then have a chat with your friend telling them not to worry, they’re still together. You could also send your friend an article from GossipCop to counter the rumour and reassure her that her favourite iconic couple is still very much #RelationshipGoals.
“Misinformation is a virus unto itself,” said Brianna Keilar.
Want to try fact-checking? Here are some cool websites that debunk fake news: