India’s War on Fact Checking Can Be Dangerous

Modi is turning a blind eye to rumor and disinformation that often lead to violence against unsuspecting citizens

India’s War on Fact Checking Can Be Dangerous
A person watches Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address to the nation on Unlock 2.0 protocol on a mobile phone on June 30, 2020 in Lucknow, India / Photo by Dheeraj Dhawan / Hindustan Times via Getty Images

In June, when Delhi police arrested prominent journalist Mohammed Zubair and passed him between multiple police stations across cities on the pretext of questioning him in at least seven cases, including one for calling Hindu supremacists “hate-mongers,” the Indian government’s intolerance toward fact checkers was out in the open. Zubair is one of India’s most prominent fact checkers. He also documents rampant hate speech and tracks misleading political narratives, two of the main catalysts of the country’s growing climate of misinformation. The software engineer co-founded Alt News in 2017 with Pratik Sinha, also an engineer, and has since amassed a huge digital following of supporters and adversaries through his work.

The trigger for his arrest came in May, when his tweets put into spotlight hate speech by Nupur Sharma, spokesperson for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Hindu nationalists who head the government. While commenting on a high-profile court case, in which a group of petitioners sought permission to conduct Hindu prayers inside the 17th-century Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi, Sharma burst into a tirade against the Prophet Muhammad. It led to a diplomatic backlash from Muslim nations — including New Delhi’s key allies in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi — though they still remain silent on the persecution of Muslims in India.

Sharma, who has often defended Hindu supremacist politics on Indian television news by amplifying viral social media misinformation denigrating Islam, was expelled from the party and booked based on multiple police complaints. Simultaneously, the far right took to social media and accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi of throwing Sharma to the wolves. Then they clamored for Zubair’s arrest for, as they saw it, putting Sharma’s life at risk and giving India a bad name.

India has long used a colonial era sedition law to persecute critics and journalists; in May this year, the Supreme Court put the law in abeyance. In recent years, the Modi government has heavily relied on a broadly worded and stringent anti-terror law, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, to jail dissidents for up to half a year without trial. The law has been used against journalists in Kashmir and rights activists in mainland India.

Eventually, Delhi police booked Zubair for a 2018 tweet mocking the BJP in which he had used a screen grab from a 1983 Hindi comedy film where a “honeymoon” hotel was renamed “Hanuman,” a Hindu god, to suggest that Modi’s maiden victory in 2014 would lead India to adopt more Hindu values. He was charged with “promoting enmity between different groups” and “malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings.”

Zubair spent nearly a month in prison before the Supreme Court granted him bail. In interviews since his release, he said he was questioned about, among other things, the fact checking he had done on claims made by the Uttar Pradesh government, headed by the BJP’s militant Hindu monk Yogi Adityanath, who is popular among Indians for his raw Hindutva and aggression against minorities and is often pegged as a future prime ministerial candidate. Uttar Pradesh is India’s most populous state.

In India, fact checking isn’t just an essential journalism practice: It is in direct confrontation with Modi and his BJP, who have managed to dominate not just social media narratives but also the primetime agenda in electronic media. It became part of the media ecosystem after the landmark general elections in 2014, when Modi came to power. Simultaneously came the rise in the United States of Donald Trump, whose penchant for calling all critical reportage “fake news” allowed the term to creep into Indian vocabulary. In December 2019, the government’s Press Information Bureau began its own so-called fact-checking process, which amounts to labeling reports as fake news based on official denials.

In July, Alt News did a fact check of a 30-minute-long speech by Modi in the city of Varanasi, considered holy by Hindus, and found that there were “instances where the [prime minister] presented his favorable opinions about BJP’s governance as facts.” Modi claimed that the Uttar Pradesh government had improved in multiple categories dealing with development and women’s safety. But Alt News, citing the government’s own data, undermined the claims.

The far right in India has often accused Zubair and Alt News of pursuing an agenda against Modi and Hindus even after the publication debunked allegations of Modi’s family economically benefiting under his rule. The campaign targeting the publication, however, is a window to broadly discredit fact checking.

Disinformation on social media, focused on valorizing Modi and stoking fears of India’s roughly 200 million Muslims, a disadvantaged minority alleged to be constantly conspiring to take over the country and destroy the Hindu way of life, was key to the BJP’s rise in 2014. A century of British colonial policy of divide and rule polarized South Asia and created a near-permanent fault line. The carving-out of a Muslim-majority Pakistan in 1947 became a communal dogwhistle to the Hindu far right’s Islamophobia.

Today, with more than 600 million internet users, the number of Indians online is twice the entire population of the United States of America. Thousands of Indians have fallen for rumors and false information circulating online, primarily on WhatsApp, that confirms their biases or introduces new ones that “the media won’t tell you,” propelling disinformation to epidemic proportions with each WhatsApp message that was forwarded. Disinformation affects elections in India as it does elsewhere, but it has also often led to physical violence.

Hence, fact checking in India has become essential to dispelling misleading information, with the hopes of quelling violence but also strengthening democracy by enabling the public to make informed choices. Expectedly, India’s rulers, fact-checked in real time, don’t hold the practice in high regard. The freedom of the press in India continues to deteriorate as Modi’s authoritarianism grows and the country has slipped eight places on the Reporters Without Borders’ global press freedom index.

Did UNESCO really declare Modi as the “world’s best prime minister”? Was Modi appointed “chairperson” and “chief president” of 153 countries? Did the New York Times really call Modi the “last, best hope” for Earth?

A large number of Indians have received one or all of these messages, accompanied by photos or videos pulled out of context, or in the case of the last one photoshopped for the purpose of presenting a larger-than-life image of Modi.

In August 2015, when such narratives had begun to appear on social media, Mumbai-based businessman Pankaj Jain felt the need to do something about it. At that time, online narratives in India were “just misinformation” and “comforting lies,” like the alleged international praise for Modi, Jain told New Lines. So, inspired by a now-defunct Australian venture of the same name, he started the Social Media Hoax Slayer, which shot to prominence more than a year later with a fact check on a viral claim that featured on primetime television too — that new bank notes in India were implanted with nanotechnology chips that would make illegal transactions virtually impossible.

In November 2016, the Modi government had abruptly demonetized India’s two largest currency denominations — 500-rupee (about $6) and 1,000-rupee (about $12) banknotes — and crippled the country’s economy dependent on cash in a bid to curb corruption and circulation of black money. While dozens reportedly died as they waited in long queues at banks to exchange their old currency or killed themselves upon failing to do so, within days, Indians were distracted with stories of Modi’s “masterstroke” against rich tax evaders, a common refrain that Indian media use to describe his populist policies.

At some point in 2017, with just two years left for India’s next general election, misinformation turned to disinformation, decidedly taking an overt political turn and grew communal. It marked the beginning of disinformation being “planned on a larger scale,” Jain said. It also coincided with Indian billionaire Mukesh Ambani launching his own telecom service across India, called Jio, making mobile telephony and the internet available to Indians even in remote parts of the country. It brought online a huge number of Indians who were accessing the internet for the first time and who, unwittingly, became foot soldiers in the cataclysmic rise of disinformation.

Since then, Jain said disinformation “has affected people so much that they are almost brainwashed, living in bubbles,” and the simultaneous emergence of several fact-checking organizations hasn’t helped. “The problem is that nobody is interested in knowing the truth anymore [unless] it confirms their biases,” he said. “It has impacted us deeply. People have stopped thinking. Everything comes from WhatsApp.”

In 2017 and 2018, more than two dozen Indians were beaten to death by mobs after rumors of child kidnappers on the prowl circulated on WhatsApp, which has more than 400 million users in India alone. Muslims have been beaten to death over rumors of their habitual slaughtering of cows, considered sacred by dominant-caste Hindus.

One reason disinformation reached epidemic levels is that the mainstream media ignored the early signs of misleading information on social media, Jency Jacob, managing editor at the prominent fact-checking outlet BOOM, told New Lines. By the time the media had caught on, political parties had already harnessed social media. The BJP led the charge, organizing a nationwide network of “IT cells” with the sole purpose of flooding social media with posts in favor of Modi and the party. “It never occurred to us that political parties are building narratives and these people were becoming powerful and influencing large sections of the population,” he said. “We were quite late to the scene.”

Beginning with a team of just two during the November 2016 crisis in the wake of demonetization, Jacob said the concept of fact checking was still so nascent that he had asked the founder of BOOM why it was a separate section “because aren’t we [already] supposed to be writing whatever is based on facts?” Applying old-school journalistic practice, Jacob said the organization analyzed the government’s justifications of demonetization but more often than not found that what it was saying publicly could not be backed by data.

In 2021, in its annual study, BOOM said it had fact-checked 421 political and 166 communal claims, of which 126 targeted India’s minority Muslims. The remainder pertained to misinformation regarding medical science amid the pandemic, disasters and defense matters. It also found that not only was Modi the prime target of misinformation but was also more prone to making misleading claims in his speeches.

Their findings were more or less consistent with the previous year that BOOM describes as the year of “infodemic.” As 2020 began in India with the outbreak of COVID-19, panicked citizens sought information on a hitherto unknown disease. Misinformation and deflection became prevalent.

When COVID-positive cases were detected at the headquarters of the proselytizing Muslim sect Tablighi Jamaat in New Delhi, where its annual global congregation was underway, it became an opportunity to ignore Modi’s slow response to the pandemic and instead to find Muslims at fault for the proliferation of the disease.

Muslims were accused of deliberately spreading the coronavirus by disregarding government advisories and maliciously spitting on food to target the Hindu majority. The terms “corona jihad” and “corona bombs” were used to describe Muslims on Indian television. Moreover, discrimination set in: Muslim hawkers were disallowed from entering Hindu localities, particularly to sell fruits and vegetables, and in many instances were also beaten.

Linking Muslims to the spread of the disease took away attention from the government’s failures to address the public health emergency and the humanitarian crisis resulting from imposing one of the world’s harshest lockdowns.

In the past six years, Jacob said, the volume of disinformation has increased manifold, with seasonal spikes in the run-up to elections. India’s 28 states elect regional governments with a five-year tenure at varying points between India’s general elections, which are also five years apart. The next general election is slated for 2024. “Just before a major state election or national election,” said Jacob, “you will find the quantity of misinformation really going up and then post elections there is a slump. Then it again builds up to the next election.”

The first recognizable moment of disinformation in recent years was the narrative of the “Gujarat Model,” the official branding used for Modi’s tenure as the chief minister of Gujarat from 2002 to 2014. Images from well-developed cities like Shanghai and Singapore circulated on Facebook, falsely portraying them to be infrastructure built by Modi in Gujarat. Even as the state under his leadership showed decline on several governance indicators, many Indians fell for the lie.

Jacob said there is an urgent need for media literacy in India. “People will always be married to their political ideologies and religious faith. But within those pockets, are they able to make sense of the fact that all the content they see on their WhatsApp feeds, do they need to believe that? That’s the kind of media literacy that is required,” he said. “We are working towards that, trying to explain terms, how to read stuff on social media, what is credible and not credible, and how to identify sources.”

Syed Yaqoob Quraishi, former election commissioner of India, told New Lines that disinformation has escalated an atmosphere of hate and polarized the society in general, and not just during elections. “Of course the electoral benefits are going to the BJP,” he said. Calling disinformation a sure-shot winning strategy for the BJP, Quraishi said it was unlikely that Modi’s government or any future BJP-led government would address the issue. “It’s only the courts that can intervene now,” he said. “If fact checking is harming somebody’s interests, they will try to block it. But nationally, we need fact checking.”

Jacob pointed out how the narrative agenda being set by political parties on social media is picked up by pliant journalists and anchors on news channels and is consumed by masses in the country. During demonetization, prominent television anchor Sudhir Chaudhary, known for his staunch pro-Modi and anti-Muslim shows, amplified the viral claim of nanochip-equipped currency on primetime television. It was a watershed moment of sorts, opening the floodgates of brazen propaganda in Modi’s favor. Since then, news channels have only increased the air time given to Modi and the BJP. Opposition parties have often accused the television media of blacking out its criticism of Modi. Most TV debates trivialize public issues and instead create dramatic, often hypernationalistic, diversions simultaneously promoting those on social media with abrasive hashtags supporting the government.

In June this year, when floods devastated the northeastern state of Assam, claiming the lives of more than 170, the state’s chief minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma, a member of the BJP, claimed the flooding was “man-made” and alluded to the role of Muslims in destroying the embankments. Taking cue, several prominent channels affixed the term “jihad” to flooding. Four Muslim men were also arrested. Alt News debunked the narrative citing local and national independent news publications and local residents who said the embankments were allegedly damaged due to prolonged flooding and apathy from government officials. It also mentioned that the administration didn’t repair the embankments, which have also outlived their life spans.

The state of India’s electronic media is so abysmal that even the country’s top judge has weighed in.

“Print media still has a certain degree of accountability, whereas electronic media has zero accountability as what it shows vanishes into thin air. Still worse is social media,” Chief Justice of India NV Ramana remarked a month before his retirement last month. In tracking seven prominent television shows in July, Newslaundry, one of India’s most eminent media critique publications, found that anchors devoted most time to communal issues and polarizing Hindu-Muslim debates over issues of governance, a failing economy and rising unemployment.

The foremost allies of the Indian government, said Manisha Pande, executive editor at Newslaundry, have been the mainstream media, who create a consensus in favor of the Modi government and often give a platform to viral misinformation. “Whenever you have unemployment figures coming out, rupee falling or inflation, you will have a massive campaign to distract people with other news or campaigns where people explain how states are responsible for not doing enough,” she said. “It’s central to making sure every time the government messes up, you lull the audience or news consumers, citizens in a democracy, from questioning them.”

A “BJP-friendly media,” said Pande, was lulling Indians into silence by consistently repeating narratives reaffirming Modi’s strongman image, his influence on global leaders and how he was keeping China, India’s biggest regional rival, in check but avoiding debate on Chinese intrusions into India along its contested borders in Ladakh, earlier a part of Indian-administered Kashmir.

“So you stop assessing the government on real parameters and instead just a sentiment that we are strong and it keeps being fed,” Pande said. “It really works for them.”

Newslaundry produces two popular shows — Newsance for an English audience and Tippani for a Hindi audience — that blend logic with humor and data to deconstruct the media’s manipulation of the public, which Pande said “is very central to the current government and all its lackeys in mainstream media.”

“Democracy is of course holding free and fair elections, but democracy also depends on access to credible information from their elected representatives to assess their work,” Pande said. “That chain is completely broken.”

Today, Indian politics has turned into a “money- and propaganda-heavy exercise with people being thrown to the back room,” said Ankit Lal, campaign strategist and author of “India Social,” adding that fact checkers are “seen as enemies by a big part of the establishment” because fact checking “creates pressures on the government on a minute-to-minute basis, which is what governments hate.”

What separates India from the rest of the world is that “separate organizations have had to step in to fight the fake news pandemic,” Lal said. “In India, fact checking evolved on its own, very organically.” However, now, as India braces for the rollout of 5G, which may come soon, Lal is apprehensive. “The way information is shared is going to take a huge leap after we get to the 5G era — virtual reality, augmented reality, mixed reality, those kinds of things will come into play,” he predicted. “We don’t know how it will impact disinformation, how people will respond to deep fakes or whether media organizations will be ready to debunk it.”

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