Disinformation, or “fake news”, is a malaise that has been worsened by the infodemic of the social media age . In the last few years, it has been used as an effective weapon to polarise communities and upset democratic processes. As we begin 2021, what is the current state of the malady? Pratik Sinha (co-founder of Alt News, a fact-checking website) and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen (Director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and Professor of Political Communication at the University of Oxford) discuss this question in a conversation moderated by P. J. George. Edited excerpts:
The modes and means of disinformation have been perpetually evolving. What is the state of disinformation as we have entered a new year?
Pratik Sinha: In the Indian context, disinformation is not evolving in quality but in quantity. When Alt News started in 2017, we used to debunk maybe five, six stories every week. But the nature of disinformation was the same as it is today — primarily old videos and images used to represent something in the present, especially if they have an element of violence or are highly politicised. We saw massive spikes of disinformation on the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protests, elections, the Delhi riots of 2020, and the pandemic. In all of these issues, the kind of disinformation which was perpetrated was pretty simple, and not that difficult to debunk. It’s just the organised manner in which it was produced every single day — multiple false claims using photos, images and text.
Going forward, I don’t think this is going to change much. In fact, it is just going to keep increasing because political parties have found out that if you put out organised disinformation, then any political narrative can be controlled. At the same time, even though India has a federal structure, the parties which have been targeted are not doing anything about it. They are not introducing any educational reform so that people can be more aware. So, what we are going to see is just a lot more disinformation that is rudimentary, but with a lot of people consuming it day in and day out, and forming their political opinion.
Rasmus Kleis Nielsen: Pratik has described very clearly the basic dynamics of disinformation in many countries. It’s very visible in India, but we also see similar patterns in the U.S. and Brazil and a number of other countries. While the tactics, forms, and communities involved in creating and disseminating disinformation evolve over time, by now we have a very clear sense of what the basic dynamics are. I think of it as the four Ps: You have disinformation that is spread and created in the pursuit of Power. It often comes from the political establishment: sometimes from the governing party, sometimes from the opposition. Then you have disinformation that is spread for Profit. This is mostly sort of low-grade clickbait. Then you have disinformation that’s driven by Profound public disagreement. This is bottom-up disinformation, where people in good faith spread information that others think of as disinformation. We see this around vaccines, climate change, community relations in countries such as India. And the final P is that all of this is enabled by Platform companies. Facebook and WhatsApp, Google and YouTube, Twitter, and others enable the creation and spread of this information in ways that set us apart from where we were before the advent of digital media. These four Ps of power, profit, profound public disagreement and platforms will continue to drive disinformation in 2021.
Then there are some things that are changing. Many disinformation actors have embraced formats that are harder to fact-check and harder to moderate, whether by humans or by automated forms. We’re also seeing that platforms have been, on rare occasions, willing to go after disinformation very aggressively. [Due to this], we are seeing a migration or a partial migration of disinformation actors away from the large consumer-facing platforms to smaller and more specialised platforms. These could be encrypted messaging applications or chat functions in online gaming platforms, or newsletters, or any number of other platforms where, at this stage, we don’t have the same amount of effort or resource to try to combat disinformation.
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Do you think the traditional media has improved its game or is it going round in circles when it comes to disinformation?
Rasmus Kleis Nielsen: The fact-checking community has evolved in really impressive and important ways over time, in particular, when they fact-check powerful and prominent individuals who seem keen that others’ disinformation should be countered but not their own. In terms of journalism, we have seen some recognition of two problems that have plagued news organisations while dealing with disinformation historically. One of them is that a fundamental driver of disinformation is powerful people who lie, and who have weaponised the journalistic convention of quoting powerful people verbatim in headlines, even if what they say is untrue. Any fact-checking and debunking happens much later in articles that many readers never get to. We’ve seen some news organisations, most prominently perhaps in the U.S., showing a greater willingness to have headlines that run along the lines of ‘so-and-so have falsely claimed without evidence that this is the case’.
The other area in which we see some progress is in journalists making really important case-by-case decisions about when to cover disinformation narratives that are potentially harmful. They are striving to strike a balance between covering them because it’s important for the public to know of the harmful claims, and risking bringing people’s attention to such narratives by virtue of covering them.
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Pratik Sinha: In India, there are two kinds of false news: the ones that come directly from politicians, and the other that is organised disinformation on social media. About politicians themselves, [statements by] Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah have hardly been fact-checked by any news organisations. I think one television channel tried to do a fact-check, and three of its anchors were asked to leave and some advertisements were withdrawn.
When it comes to organised disinformation on social media, again, the mainstream media in India has acknowledged the issue but not many news organisations actually do fact-checking. Even if any mainstream media organisations are doing so, they are not looking at the most dangerous claims that are being put out. The main purpose of disinformation in India is to target minorities, and there’s very little fact-checking that has been done to reduce that harm.
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India also has another problem. Not only is the mainstream media not fact-checking people, but it is actually putting out disinformation. If not disinformation, these are plugs by the government. The government claimed that Arsenicum Album 30, a homeopathic drug, can prevent people from having COVID-19 and so, many organisations carried that claim. Many mainstream media organisations gave Baba Ramdev unlimited bandwidth to put out his claims on Coronil.
Platforms such as Facebook, Google, Twitter and YouTube have amplified disinformation with algorithms that prioritise engagement and revenue. Do you see 2021 being any different on this front?
Pratik Sinha: From the point of view of India, it is not going to be very different. As I said, one of the most common forms of disinformation in India are old images and old videos. Now, platforms claim that they don’t want to be the arbiters of truth, but it takes very little technological work to have something as basic as a database of images. We have developed a similar technology for the Alt News app with a database of images with dates that the users can look up. There is no question here of the platform deciding what is the truth. This major vector of disinformation can be controlled if platforms are willing to go that extra mile. When I’ve had an audience with some of these platforms, I have suggested that that they bring us in, as we are the people who are bridging journalism and technology and have ideas on how to deal with these issues. But all our requests have fallen on deaf ears. Second, a lot of their decisions are not well-thought-out. They are constantly reacting to situations and do not seem to have any plan.
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Rasmus Kleis Nielsen: I agree that technology has the potential to deal with these problems. But at a very fundamental level, there are key parts of these problems that are political and social in nature. Several of these companies took major initiatives around the 2020 U.S. elections. And if you are a user in India, you would have every right to ask, ‘Am I not equally important?’ The companies have some tough questions to answer in terms of how they treat us.
While questioning science and questionable science have both been aspects of disinformation earlier, the pandemic period saw an overabundance of this. Where’s the slip up happening due to which established science such as vaccines is being called into question?
Rasmus Kleis Nielsen: Science is arguably the single most powerful way we have of arriving at the best obtainable version of the truth. There are clear examples of misinformation and disinformation that is in direct conflict with the best available scientific evidence. These are harmful as they can be around vaccines or public health emergencies and, for that matter, climate change. It’s a particularly problematic form of disinformation and one where we actually have a ground truth that we can compare the claims against. However, we need to recognise that in a rapidly developing situation, research in science by its very nature deals with uncertainty rather than certainty. Large and powerful institutions that make decisions based on scientific input have to recognise that the scientific consensus will evolve as we get new data, and different analyses sometimes overturn established findings. Think of a situation like the early parts of the pandemic. Very important international health organisations made a number of claims about the way in which the disease is transmitted that we now know are wrong. I don’t think we should blame them for that. There are some areas in which there is a clear scientific consensus and an established ground truth, but there are other areas in which this is less clear.
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Pratik Sinha: From the Indian perspective, I’ll give it a two part-answer. One is how journalism deals with science. I know The Hindu has one, but most news organisations don’t have a science team that is trained to cover science. They treat science as press releases, dutifully putting them out without examining the facts. Problem number two is that none of us expected a pandemic; we were just not ready for the fact that during a pandemic, we will have science that is constantly changing. Even recently, we debunked a video where people were circulating an old mask protocol. The other thing that happened, especially in India, was that alternative medicine thought of this as a very good chance to gain prominence. A number of cures were put out claiming to be COVID-19 cures. These claims are there on Amazon and Google and many people are buying these drugs; again, no fact-checking. So, in India, we are facing a much bigger problem, not just because we have what the rest of the world has, but because the journalism industry in India is not equipped to handle the science.
Rasmus Kleis Nielsen is Director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and Professor of Political Communication at the University of Oxford; Pratik Sinha is the co-founder of Alt News, a fact-checking website