Dr. Sunayan Bhattacharjee
Kolkata : Scholars of infodemic and renowned false news busters from across India trudged on the dangers of misinformation, disinformation and mal-information during the final day of #MediaNext 2020 organized by the Kolkata-based Adamas University that focused on Busting False News.
The speakers for the day included experts from both the industry and academia. Dr. Ankuran Dutta, an Associate Professor of Communication at Gauhati University in Guwahati, started the proceedings for the day. Following Dr. Dutta, Pratik Sinha, the Co-founder and Editor of Alt News, deliberated on the various intricacies of detecting false news. The final speaker was Govindraj Ethiraj, who founded Boom and FactChecker, two of the most respected false news busting websites in the country today.
The conclave is being organized in association with Sharda University, Birla Global University, DME, AIMEC, Lok Samvad Sansthan, Exchange4media, ABP Education and IndiaReal.in, The mega conclave is being held over a period of 10 days from June 1, 2020 to June 10, 2020. Each day of the conclave has been focusing on one specialized domain of the Media and Entertainment (M&E) industry and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on that specific domain.
Dr. Ankuran Dutta, who heads the Department of Communication and Journalism at Gauhati University, started by candidly admitting that he is not a fact checker himself. However, Dr. Dutta has been playing an instrumental role in creating awareness on false information for a while now. Concerning the origin of the word Fake News, Dr. Dutta said, “The US President Donald Trump used it for the first time and made it a household word.” He added that the term infodemic is a new term that owes its origin to the twin words information and pandemic. In very simple words, infodemic is the pandemic of false information.
Dr. Dutta said, “Fake news is deliberately fabricated and published with the intention to deceive.” While deliberating on the topic, he differentiated among the words misinformation, disinformation and mal-information. He interestingly remarked that infodemic spreads faster than pandemic and went on to add that false news circulates six times faster than true news.
As of January, 2020, the total number of active internet users in India stood at 69 crores, which makes the country the second largest in terms of the sheer number of internet users. To top it, the total number of people who use social media is 40 crores. According to Dr. Dutta, this has ushered in a digital revolution in the country, which has further complicated the scenario.
Dr. Dutta then extensively spoke about misbeliefs and superstitions, which are as dangerous as fake news. He took the example of state-sponsored superstitions and mentioned the preeminence of the number nine in Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s actions. He also spoke about clapping and the banging of dishes on the day of the Janata Curfew. According to Dr. Dutta, these actions are counterproductive and could spark off unnecessary superstitions. The next example that Dr. Dutta took was the unsubstantiated claims that cow dung, cow urine and the water from the Rive Ganges could cure Coronavirus.
Dr. Dutta quipped that not only political parties but also religious institutions play a central role in spreading superstitions. Therefore, he vouched for sanitizing people’s minds in addition to sanitizing their hands. Dr. Dutta said, “Digital literacy is very important.” He emphasized that fact checking is not spell checking and hence requires more dedication. He specifically suggested the audience to discard unquoted stories, even if those come from the mainstream media. He ended his discourse by pointing out that social media handles and websites need to be compulsorily verified as there can’t be viable gatekeeping for the social media platforms.
Next in line was Pratik Sinha, who could be considered to be one of the biggest names in the world of fake news busting. He pointed out that misinformation has been in the rise over the past three months ever since the pandemic broke out. He iterated that it is important to understand the cycles of misinformation. In the act of spreading misinformation, people’s emotions like fear, anger and hatred are extensively used. A piece of misinformation becomes viral when it conforms to the confirmation bias of individuals. The creators of fake news take that humane route.
Pratik said, “Those who create misinformation target a specific psychological profile.” He went to the extent of deliberating the disastrous impact of fake news. One of the examples that he took was the congregation of migrant workers at Bandra Railway Station during the lockdown period on the basis of a piece of information that said that trains were going to run from that given day. As can be understood, it took some doing to convince the crowd that the information was faulty. Similarly, Pratik took many other examples to show the impact of fake information.
Pratik said, “One of the characteristics of fake news is the fact they seem clickbait and grab eyeballs.” He added that fake news is more dangerous as we are in the middle of a huge humanitarian crisis. Pratik said that fake news at times impact the entire nation and at other times impact only a certain geographical area.
Pratik took an example of a fake piece of information that emanated from the government coffers itself. It was mentioned in a central government advisory that Arsenic Album 30, a homeopathic drug, can prevent Covid-19. There was no scientific study that verified this information and yet it spread like wildfire because it was backed by a government advisory.
In yet another scathing example, Pratik took the example of how Indian Muslims were targeted throughout the country after the Tablighi Jamaat congregation in Delhi through the circulation of a number of false information about Muslims intentionally spreading Covid-19. In fact, Alt News busted a series of news items that were shifting the blame on the Muslim community for spreading the disease in the country.
Pratik ended the discourse by revealing that the Alt News team is coming up with a book on the techniques to check facts and the online version of the book will be free to read.
The final speaker for the day was the dashing and flamboyant Govindraj Ethiraj, who primarily harped on what needs to be done in order to counter the scourge of fake news. He began his discourse by reemphasizing the fact that Donald Trump gave birth to the word, which has become extremely controversial. In a rather interesting submission, Govindraj said, “Fake news is often driven by structure and design.”
Govindraj while talking about the various strategies to counter fake news focused on the importance of classic journalism in doing so. On-the-field checking is very important to determine if a piece of news is fake or not. He took an example to illustrate this point. Recently, a piece of news spread that Javed Akhtar didn’t receive an award that he was supposed to receive. Therefore, Govindraj and his team confirmed it directly from Javed Akhtar’s wife Shabana Azmi that the piece of news is indeed fake.
According to Govindraj, as part of busting fake news, it is very important to explain things. He also said that people should seek information about a particular subject only from its expert and not from anybody else. Govindraj agreed that a large part of mainstream media is indeed biased and hence can’t be believed on face value. As part of the responsibilities of an aware citizen, it is important to look at all piece of information with a lot of suspicion and cynicism.
The other aspect that Govindraj talked about is the creation of specialized sources to authenticate or verify information. He added that while the internet can’t be converted into a safe space, the way one interacts with the internet can be made safe with a bit of caution. Govindraj pointed out one more rather interesting angle. He urged people to not bother themselves with an information overdose. At times, we take in information that we can’t handle. To deal with fake information, Govindraj appealed to the teaching community to develop critical thinking amongst the students.
The last day of #MediaNext 2020 also saw some of the scions of the Indian educational sphere interacting with the audience. Gracing the online conclave were three distinguished academicians – three Vice Chancellors of three premier universities.
The first to speak was Prof. (Dr.) Deependra Kumar Jha, the Vice Chancellor of Adamas University. He opened the day in a grand note by pointing out at the relevance of the theme. Prof. (Dr.) Jha said, “Today, everyone has become a journalist subject to the unbelievable advancement of technology. Hence, the trained journalists have to compete with citizen journalists.”
The next in line was Prof. (Dr.) Sibaram Khara, the Vice Chancellor of the Greater-Noida-based Sharda University. He congratulated the organizers for organizing such a fabulous event and said, “Media is a very critical service provider to the society.”
Last but not the least was Prof. (Dr.) S.P. Singh, the Vice Chancellor of Royal Global University in Guwahati. He emphasized on the importance of continued learning through webinars and said, “Let negative people not influence you in your quest to enhance your learning through the webinars that are being organized by multiple entities.”
The day also featured videos on fake news from WebQoof and a recorded dance number by Rajasthani folk artists.