Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 26 March 2019

Facebook tries controlling election fake news in India

Ties up with local fact-checking company to monitor reports related to Karnataka state polls

A billboard in Bengaluru, India warns voters against illegal practices ahead of the Karnataka legislative assembly elections on May 12, 2018. Jagadeesh NV / EPA / April 14, 2018
A billboard in Bengaluru, India warns voters against illegal practices ahead of the Karnataka legislative assembly elections on May 12, 2018. Jagadeesh NV / EPA / April 14, 2018

Facebook has tied up with an Indian fact-checking company in its first attempt to prevent fake news from influencing an election.

The collaboration with Boom, a certified fact-checking agency based in Mumbai, will continue past the May 12 polling day for state elections in Karnataka, until the results are announced on May 15.

Facebook, which has been under fire around the world for allowing the spread of fake news, already has fact-checking programmes in the US, the Philippines, France, Indonesia and Italy, but the Karnataka project is the first one launched expressly to deal with an election, said Govindraj Ethiraj, the founder of Boom.

Mr Ethiraj founded Boom in 2014 as a site focused on promoting freedom of expression in India. Two years later, he gave it new bearings. After Donald Trump won the presidency in the US in 2016 "it was quite clear to me that fake news was going to matter here in India as well”, he said.

Boom is one of only two organisations in India — and around 50 in the world — that has been certified by the International Fact Checking Network, an initiative driven by the Poynter Institute, a non-profit media school in St Petersburg, Florida.

With a team of six fact-checkers, Boom has verified the claims of politicians, examined the veracity of rumours and scrutinised circulated videos or images that might be doctored. The results are posted on its website.

Mr Ethiraj said Boom’s discussions with Facebook began well before the current controversy surrounding Cambridge Analytica, the British firm accused of harvesting user data from the social media platform. “They had been working on similar projects earlier, elsewhere in the world,” he said. “But maybe this Cambridge Analytica business gave them some steam.”

Facebook announced its fact-checking partnership with Boom in a company blog post on Monday, and outlined how it would work.

Once Facebook users flag “news” links as fake or inappropriate, the articles enter Boom’s checking pipeline. The agency also roots out disputed or suspect pieces from other sources: Twitter, WhatsApp and dubious news sites.


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If an article is found to be false, Facebook will push it lower down the news feed. “We have learned that once a story is rated as false, we have been able to reduce its distribution by 80 per cent,” the company said.

If the fact-checkers write articles debunking a false news story, Facebook will show it in the related articles immediately below the story in the news feed. The company said it would also notify users and and page administrators "if they try to share a story or have shared one in the past that’s been determined to be false”.

But not all election-related news can be fact-checked, Mr Ethiraj said.

When a truck hit a car in the convoy of Ananth Kumar Hegde, a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) politician campaigning in Karnataka, he claimed it was an attempt to murder him.

“That kind of thing isn’t possible for us to check. It’s more a law and order situation,” Mr Ethiraj said.

He recounted a recent example of how Boom’s work could be effective.

Divya Spandana, the social media head of the Congress party, had posted a photo of a newspaper in which a BJP campaign ad allegedly read: “For A Corruption State.” Suggesting that the ad was a typo, she wrote: “The honesty is laughable.”

A Boom fact-checker analysed the photo and determined that it had been modified, and that the original ad read: “For A Corruption Free State.” The fact-checker also contacted Ms Spandana, who admitted that she knew the image had been Photoshopped, and that she had received it as a forward on WhatsApp. “It was meant to be sarcasm,” she claimed in her defence.

India has roughly 200 million active Facebook users, and the controversy over fake news has already put many Karnataka voters on guard. P S Rajagopal, a 39-year-old engineer living in Bengaluru, the state capital, said he was far warier of articles he saw on Facebook than elsewhere. “Just because I see people only share articles that seem to confirm what their politics is or has become,” he said.

Mr Rajagopal said he tried to be diligent in his consumption of news: clicking through to the article to read the whole thing, rather than relying upon an extract; taking into account who shared the story; and being extra cautious with websites outside the mainstream media.

Mr Ethiraj said such vigilance was necessary.

“So far the level of fake news in Karnataka has been par for the course. But closer to polls, the velocity of misinformation usually increases. For this election, the volume of fake news will go up soon.”

Updated: April 19, 2018 07:23 PM