Finding truth in the haystack of forwards

Website hits (visits) jumped to half a million last December, when fake stories around demonetisation started to circulate.

Updated - March 20, 2017 01:05 am IST

Published - March 18, 2017 05:40 pm IST

Check4Spam is an attempt at tackling the deluge of fake news and spam on social media.

Check4Spam is an attempt at tackling the deluge of fake news and spam on social media.

In January, a report by a news agency claiming that the United Arab Emirates had attached assets of underworld don Dawood Ibrahim went viral after it was picked up by members of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and shared on social media. Subsequently, the Ambassador of the UAE in India dismissed the reports saying that he did not know of any such raids.

The immediacy of social media and instant messaging platforms such as WhatsApp make it tempting to share information to a wider audience with a simple swipe on a smart phone. In this age of post-truth and alternative facts, users are susceptible to nuggets of information that tap into a wide range of emotions from outrage to pride, anger to patriotism.

The necessary service of fact-checking or verification of social media posts is yet to pick up in India, but it is becoming vital in a country that crossed 346.22 million mobile internet users in September last year (a report by Telecom Regulatory Authority of India).

Internationally, has a section dealing with India-based forwards and posts, but the reach of Snopes is limited in a country that loves its forwards and accepts their claims with touching trust. There are a handful of fact-checking websites in the country, but they are more focused on verifying political news and government data.

This leaves a wide gap for the other kinds of forwards that people receive and share on a minute to minute basis. The boy/ girl missing, blood needed, the ten rupee coin banned kind of forwards tend to spread like wildfire. Most people do not have the time and resources or even see the need to verify these messages before sharing them. Finally, a handful of websites are beginning to find ways to bust these forwards.

In 2015, Shammas Oliyath was one among thousands of people who received a forward about a child admitted to KIMS Hospital in Bengaluru needing assistance. It led to chaos even in the hospital, with authorities wondering which ward the child was in. “It was revealed much later that the child was in Mumbai,” says Oliyath. This bothered the software engineer enough to talk to friend Bala Krishn Birla and eventually start a Wordpress blog listing out such spam messages. Then, last August, the duo launched, a myth-busting website. “We got our own domain and started a Whatsapp number to collect spam messages from people, so that we could research them and label them as true or false,” says Birla, an engineering graduate from IIT Kanpur. The two friends analyse social media messages and forwards besides holding full-time day jobs.

Tricky research

Finding out if a forwarded message is factually correct is not an easy task. Many people simply delete outlandish messages. However, for many, a cry for help or a carefully worded message that endorses (or counters) their ideological views is hard to ignore.

Shammas Oliyath and Bal Krishn Birla, founders of

Shammas Oliyath and Bal Krishn Birla, founders of

Fake messages can range from the seemingly innocent, like a change in Indian Railway’s ticket booking system, to the bizarre like leftover onions being poisonous. “Then, there are the UNESCO forwards. According to these, the UNESCO selects everything Indian to be the best in the world,” said Shreyas K, an advertising professional who works in Bengaluru.

“Most spam messages can be verified based on online research. I usually spend three hours once I reach home after work researching the submissions we receive from site visitors. However, for the smartly created ones, it takes much longer and involves calling the numbers listed in the message as well,” Oliyath explained.

This is not as simple as it may seem. Sometimes two or more photos sourced from unrelated places are morphed to create a single image. “A simple reverse image search on Google does not work in such cases,” said Oliyath. Then, the duo has to separate each image and submit it for a reverse search individually. “Now imagine if it is a collage,” he said, smiling.

According to Birla, spam can be broadly categorised into text, text plus image, and image files. They can be classified as ideological, finance-based and no-good-for-anything type messages. The last would include something inane like a woman giving birth to 11 babies. “In this case,” said Birla, “we found that the woman was a South American and the 11 infants were from an IVF clinic in Gujarat!”

Rapid grapevine

A big problem that verifiers face is the incredible speed with which a spam message is spread. “A forward that has been shared thousands of times will be all over Google. Often, the first results when we start verifying will be of websites containing the same news. Most of the time, these websites are just looking to attract visitors and don’t bother to verify the content individually,” said T. Arvind, a search engine optimisation, or SEO, expert.

This becomes a time-consuming barrier for those looking to trace the source. “We often find answers only after the first five-ten pages of Google search. With morphed images, the real images tend to get pushed down in the search results and will appear only after ten pages,” explained Oliyath.

Some fake news forwards go viral so quickly that damage control is the only option. A case in point was a Valentine’s Day notice purportedly issued by the management of a popular Bengaluru college, which stated that it was mandatory for female students to have at least one boyfriend by February 14. As the fake notice went viral, the college was prompted to issue a statement that the information was false.

Globally, both Google and Facebook have announced several measures to weed out users and websites that carry fake news. Last month, Google announced a tie-up with French news agencies to verify news, photos and even memes about the French Presidential elections. These efforts are yet to reach India.

150 a day and growing

As probably the first website dedicated to checking spam and fake forwards in the country, Oliyath and Birla are on a tough journey. “I am usually up till 1 a.m. doing research. When we get verification requests for spam we have already dealt with, I spend 30-45 minutes during my lunch break to respond with the relevant links. We get around 150 requests in a day and most of these forwards have already been dealt with on our website,” said Oliyath.

Oliyath handles the research and Birla handles the technology. “I spend two-three hours a day on the site. We struggle when traffic increases. Some days when there is a strong rumour doing the rounds, we have more than 1,000 users on the site. A case in point is when there was a message about electronic registration of property,” said Birla.

To help maintain the website, the duo has opted for Google’s advertising platform. “This helps us break even on the cost of maintaining the website. While we are not looking to make a profit from the site, we certainly do want to grow. A browser plugin or making the API available to other developers are some of the things we are looking at,” he said.

With 80% of all requests received by Check4Spam falling firmly in the rumour/ spam category, the work can get a little overwhelming at times. “We are now looking for volunteers to help with the fact-checking. Many people do fact-check for their own satisfaction or for telling their friends. If they send us their research debunking a myth, we will scrutinise the method and if satisfied, post it on our website” said Oliyath.

Scaling up

The website has received close to 2,250 requests for verification since October last year. An average of 120 requests a day is the norm, with the site seeing around a quarter million hits per month on average. Hits went up to half a million in December 2016, when several rumours based on demonetisation started circulating.

They are looking at adding a ‘partly true’ section, which is also found in some international fact-checking websites. Eventually, Check4Spam wants to scale up by collaborating with other like-minded teams from across the country. While reaching the level of a will take a few years, the founders say they have the patience to play the long game. “There are teams in Hyderabad and other cities. I plan to reach out to them so that we could all work together and avoid duplication.” For now, the website is committed to staying non-commercial. “We won’t consider funding unless the source matches our commitment to weeding out fake news,” said Oliyath.

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