From the Field Society

On the origin of specious news

Fact checking: Pratik Sinha at his residence in Ahmedabad

Fact checking: Pratik Sinha at his residence in Ahmedabad   | Photo Credit: Vijay Soneji

In July, a select group of media entrepreneurs from South Asia will make their way to the Google News Lab Asia-Pacific Summit 2017 in Singapore to discuss, among other things, potential solutions to ‘fake news’.

Also invited are any one of an eclectic trio: former software engineer Pratik Sinha, another person who goes by the name ‘Sam Jawed’, and the anonymous administrator of the ‘Unofficial Subramanian Swamy’ Facebook page.

The three make up the fledgling fact-checking Indian website, Alt News. Sinha, the website’s founder, quit a career in software to devote all his resources to an enterprise he believes is of vital importance today. The other two still have day jobs, but prefer to keep their identities entirely underground.

Alt News did not begin as a fact-checking or fake news busting enterprise when it was launched in February this year. “Last August, I walked from Ahmedabad to Una as a part of the Una rally, and documented it on the Truth of Gujarat Facebook page and on my own page, and it became very popular. Initially, except for one journalist, there was no one from the national media. Not even the local Gujarati media. This was when I decided that there was a need for an alternate news platform.”

No free time

Since that beginning last August, Sinha has come a long way—with much motivation and little resources. In the five months of its launch the site has amassed over 27,000 followers on Facebook and 13,000 on Twitter. This, without either advertisements or external funding.

Alt News was the organic outcome of his vision for an independent news venture that would bring to light the undocumented and unseen, says Sinha. While fake news has always been around, it burgeoned into an epidemic between late 2015 and 2016, he says. “If you look at most of the fake news websites, like,,, they have mostly been created after 2015.”

On the origin of specious news

This fact, and his experience in software engineering, meant the public had a pressing need and he had a potential solution: the time was perfect to serve Alt News to the public.

The portal consumes all of Sinha’s time. “From the moment I open my eyes till the moment I shut them, it’s all Alt News.” He usually runs the site and social media from home, on a heavy-duty laptop with a Linux operating system and 16 gigabytes of RAM. But for the past few days, his charger has given way, and he’s had to resort to working on a desktop he describes in words not fit for print.

But Alt News is now on a trajectory where it can finally grow out of those confines. They’re in the process of registering as a non-profit organisation, and are on track to have a company formed and registered within a month. Once that happens, Sinha plans to raise funds and get together a bigger team.

Tracing the origins of a widely circulated hoax can often be complicated. An image or video may not have been manipulated: rather, an entirely authentic piece of footage may be circulated under false contexts. In such cases, all Sinha can recommend is tenacity.

“There was a video that went viral earlier this year (it was played out as a Hindu man being lynched by Muslims in Nawada, Bihar. I could not find anything on it at all. So, on a hunch, I asked a friend to translate a few of the keywords into Bengali.  We ran a search and soon found a news report on a small Bangladesh website. It wasn’t even a mainstream Bangladeshi news organisation. That was when we figured out it was a different video being circulated as something that had happened here.”

Similarly, there was a video that suggested an Indian soldier had been beheaded by the Pakistani army. “This went viral right after the real beheading of two Indian army jawans. I searched and found a screenshot on an obscure website where the ‘comments’ section had someone describing what was playing out in Portuguese. I copied that comment, got it translated, and landed at the root of the original report.” Obviously, it was not Pakistan.

Several fake videos need more than just reverse-frame searches; they need frame-by-frame analysis. “The reports of certain fake videos are only in local languages and non-English language websites. This makes it extremely difficult for us.”

He tells me about a fake video which gained traction here, but had originated in a Turkish city called Samsun. “It was an entirely local issue. There were multiple Turkish news reports, but none in English.” Sinha had to get in touch with a Turkish speaker to authenticate his hypothesis.

There are, of course, instances when luck just doesn’t strike. In such instances, he believes it’s better if they hold out on the report entirely, rather than publish a half-baked story that serves no purpose. “Calling a video fake for the sake of it doesn’t help. You have to show the antecedents of the content.” In fact, Alt News has a few stories that have been held back simply because they’ve been unable to verify their hunch.

Bust the myths

It is too early to comment on whether Alt News will grow into an Indian version of PolitiFact (a U.S-based political fact-checking organisation). And Sinha, moreover, doesn’t see Alt News simply as a myth-busting initiative. A lot of their work has been about calling out bias and misreporting in mainstream media. “We hope to be a watchdog of both social media and mainstream media.” Sinha is also involved with Jan Sangharsh Manch, a civil liberties organisation.

He has another ambition: “We are especially keen on a Hindi website, because that is the language in which most fake news is distributed. It is important for Hindi readers to get access to this information.”

But Sinha’s long-term goal is simple; to move beyond debunking isolated incidences of misinformation, and to step into the sphere of influence.

“Our concentration is on impact, not simply on calling the fake fake. Alt News wants to be in a position where if we put out a story, a fake viral video will lose its popularity within a few hours of our putting the story out, rather than a few days.”

Of course, Sinha, Unofficial Subramanian Swamy, and Sam Jawed have all been targets of the very fake enterprises and trolls they track. But Sinha accepts cross-fire from across ideological borders. And he keeps the Alt News motto simple. “You may not agree with my ideology. But, I will put out so many facts that you cannot deny them.”

Corrections & Clarifications: This article has been edited for factual errors.

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Printable version | Sep 24, 2020 7:42:14 AM |

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