Nikhil Pahwa is an Indian journalist, digital rights activist, and founder of MediaNama, a mobile and digital news portal. He has been a key commentator on stories and debates around Indian digital media companies, censorship and Internet and mobile regulation in India.
On the even of India’s general election 2019, Nalaka Gunawardene spoke to him in an email interview to find out how disinformation spread on social media and chat app platforms figures in election campaigning. Excerpts of this interview were quoted in Nalaka’s #OnlineOffline column in the Sunday Morning newspaper of Sri Lanka on 7 April 2019.
Nalaka: What social media and chat app platforms are most widely used for spreading mis and disinformation in the current election campaign in India?
Nikhil: In India, it’s as if we’ve been in campaigning mode ever since the 2014 elections got over: the political party in power, the BJP, which leveraged social media extensively in 2014 to get elected has continued to build its base on various platforms and has been campaigning either directly or, allegedly, through affiliates, ever since. They’re using online advertising, chat apps, videos, live streaming, and Twitter and Facebook to campaign. Much of the campaigning happens on WhatsApp in India, and messages move from person to person and group to group. Last elections we saw a fair about of humour: jokes were used as a campaigning tool, but there was a fair amount of misinformation then, as there has been ever since.
Are platforms sufficiently aware of these many misuses — and are they doing enough (besides issuing lofty statements) to tackle the problem?
Platforms are aware of the misuse: a WhatsApp video was used to incite a riot as far back as 2013. India has the highest number of internet shutdowns in the world: 134 last year, as per sflc.in. much of this is attributable to internet shutdowns, and the inability of local administration to deal with the spread of misinformation.
Platforms are trying to do what they can. WhatsApp has, so far, reduced the ability to forward messages to more than 5 people at a time. Earlier it was 256 people. Now people are able to control whether they can be added to a group without consent or not. Forwarded messages are marked as forwarded, so people know that the sender hasn’t created the message. Facebook has taken down groups for inauthentic behavior, robbing some parties of a reach of over 240,000 fans, for some pages. Google and Facebook are monitoring election advertising and reporting expenditure to the Election Commission. They are also supporting training of journalists in fact checking, and funding fact checking and research on fake news. These are all steps in the right direction, but given the scale of the usage of these platforms and how organised parties are, they can only mitigate some of the impact.
Does the Elections Commission have powers and capacity to effectively address this problem?
Incorrect speech isn’t illegal. The Election Commission has a series of measures announced, including a code of conduct from platforms, approvals for political advertising, take down of inauthentic content. I’m not sure of what else they can do, because they also have to prevent misinformation without censoring legitimate campaigning and legitimate political speech.
What more can and must be done to minimise the misleading of voters through online content?
I wish I knew! There’s no silver bullet here, and it will always be an arms race versus misinformation. There is great political incentive for political parties to create misinformation, and very little from platforms to control it.
Fake News is not new. The phenomenon has been around, in one form or another, for decades! Many of us in the global South have grown up amidst intentionally fake news stories in our media, some of it coming from governments, no less.
Fake News is merely a symptom of a wider and deeper crisis.It is a crisis of public trust in journalism and media that has been building up over the years in many countries. Fake News fills a vacuum of credibility.
In my latest Ravaya column (in Sinhala), published on 24 June 2018, I revisit the topic of Fake News to discuss if and how legal regulation can help counter Fake News. I argue that any new laws should be introduced very carefully, so as not to allow governments to restrict freedom of expression. I look at the botched Indian attempt to penalise journalists over Fake News, and the new Anti-Fake News Law in Malaysia (April 2018) that has been widely criticised for overbroad definitions and regulatory overreach.
In the end, I conclude: even the best laws can be a partial solution to the Fake News crisis. A healthy dose of scepticism can filter out a good deal of disinformation surrounding us. We also have to build media literacy as a modern-day survival skill, and nurture independent fact checking services.
April 1 is observed in many countries as a day for fooling people with practical jokes and harmless fabrications. This aspect of popular culture can be traced back to the times of ancient Greece.
There is now a new twist to this tradition. Every day is beginning to feel like April Fools’ Day in the age of Internet pranks, clever satire and fake news!
Sadly, many among us who apply some measure of skepticism on April 1 are not as vigilant for the rest of the year.
Ah, how I miss the time when intentional misleading was largely confined to just one day. I’m old enough to remember how some Lankan newspapers used to carry elaborate – and seemingly plausible – stories on their front pages on April Fools’ day. The now defunct Sun and Weekend excelled in that delightful art of the tall tale. Of course, they owned up the following day, poking fun at readers who were fooled.
During the past two decades, our media landscape has become a great deal more diverse. Today we have 24/7 SMS news services, all-news TV channels, numerous websites and, of course, millions using social media to spread information (or misinformation) instantaneously.
But does more necessarily mean better? That is a highly debatable question. We seem to have too much media, but not enough journalism! At least journalism of the classical kind where facts are sacred and comment is free (yet informed).
That kind of journalism still exists, but along with so much else. Today’s global cacophony has democratized the media (which is to be celebrated). At the same time, it spawned veritable cottage industries of fake news, conspiracy theories and gossip peddlers.
What is to be done? The long term solution is to raise media literacy skills in everyone, so that people consume media and social media with due diligence.
That takes time and effort. Since misinformation is polluting the public mind and even undermining democratic processes, we must also look for other, faster solutions.
One such coping strategy is fact checking. It literally means verifying information – before or after publication – in the media.
In a growing number of countries, mainstream media outlets practise fact checking as an integral part of their commitment to professionalism. They seek to balance accuracy with speed, which has been made more challenging by the never-ending news cycle.
In other cases, independent researchers or civil society groups are keeping track of news media content after publication. In the United States, where the practice is well developed, several groups are devoted to such post-hoc fact checking. These include FactCheck, PolitiFact, and NewsTrust’s Truth Squad. They fact check the media as well as statements by politicians and other public figures.
In 2015, fact checking organisations formed a world network and this year, they observed the inaugural International Fact Checking Day.
The initiative is a collaboration by fact checkers and journalism organisations from around the world, “with a goal to enlist the public in the fight against misinformation in all its forms.”
“International Fact Checking Day is not a single event but a rallying cry for more facts — and fact checking — in politics, journalism and everyday life,” says Alexios Mantzarlis, director of the International Fact-Checking Network at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in the US.
One visual icon for the Fact-Checking Day is Pinocchio, the fictional puppet character whose nose grew long each time he uttered a lie.
We in Sri Lanka urgently need a professional, non-partisan fact checking service to save us from the alarming proliferation of Pinocchios in public life. Not just our politicians, but also many academics and activists who peddle outdated statistics, outlandish claims or outright conspiracy theories.
Take, for example, the recent claim by a retired professor of political science that 94 Members of Parliament had not even passed the GCE Ordinary Level exam. Apparently no one asked for his source at the press conference (maybe because it fed a preconceived notion). Later, when a (rare?) skeptical journalist checked with him, he said he’d “read it in a newspaper some time ago” — and couldn’t name the publication.
A simple Google search shows that an MP (Buddhika Pathirana) had cited this exact number in September 2014 – about the last Parliament!
Given the state of our media, which often takes down dictation rather than asks hard questions, fact checking is best done by a research group outside the media industry.
A useful model could be South Asia Check, an independent, non-partisan initiative by Panos South Asia anchored in Kathmandu. It “aims to promote accuracy and accountability in public debate” by examining statements and claims made by public figures in Nepal and occasionally, across South Asia (http://southasiacheck.org).
Beginning in the 1990s, thousands of people in Sri Lanka’s Dry Zone – heartland of its rice farming — developed kidney failure without having diabetes or high blood pressure, the common causative factors. Most affected were men aged 30 to 60 years, who worked as farmers. As numbers rose, puzzled doctors and other scientists started probing possible causes for what is now named Chronic Kidney Disease of unknown etiology (abbreviated as CKDu).
CKDu has become a fully-fledged public health crisis and humanitarian emergency, affecting thousands of people and their families – most of them subsistence farmers. Investigating causes of this ailment — still not pinned down to a specific cause or factor — has proven difficult. While scientists follow rigorous scientific methods, some ultra-nationalists and opportunistic politicians are trying to hijack the issue for their own agenda setting.
Sadly, some journalists and media outlets have added fuel to the fire with sensationalist reporting and unwarranted fear-mongering. For several years, I have documented the kind of misinformation, myths and pseudo-science uncritically peddled by Lankan media on CKDu.
In late 2012, speaking at an Asian science communication workshop held in Colombo, I first coined the phrase: Mass Media Failure is complicating Mass Kidney Failure. In December 2015, I revisited and updated this analysis, arguing that there are many reasons for systemic media failure in Sri Lanka that has allowed ultra-nationalists and certain environmental activists to pollute the public mind with half-truths and conspiracy theories. These need media industry level reform. Meanwhile, for improving the CKDu information flow in society, I proposed some short, medium and long term recommendations.
On 16 December 2015, I was invited by Sri Lanka’s Presidential Task Force for the Prevention of Chronic Kidney Disease to speak on this topic at the NATIONAL WORKSHOP ON PREVENTION OF CHORNIC KIDNEY DISEASE held in Colombo.
Speaking to an audience of scientists, health and agriculture sector public officials and policy makers, I briefly explored the kind of misinformation, myths and pseudo-science uncritically peddled by Lankan media.
Scientists are researching widely on what causes the Chronic Kidney Disease of unknown etiology (CKDu) in Sri Lanka that affects thousands of people (mostly farm workers) and burdens the public healthcare system. As health officials and policy makers struggle with the prolonged humanitarian emergency, unprofessional and fear-mongering media coverage often adds to public confusion and fear.
As a science writer, I have long been concerned about public communication of risk in times of distress. In late 2012, speaking at an Asian science communication workshop held in Colombo, I first coined the phrase: Mass Media Failure is complicating Mass Kidney Failure.
I revisited and updated this analysis,arguing that there are many reasons for systemic media failure in Sri Lanka that has allowed ultra-nationalists and certain environmental activists to pollute the public mind with half-truths and conspiracy theories. These need media industry level reform.
Meanwhile, for improving the CKDu information flow in society, I proposed some short, medium and long term recommendations.