Pankaj Mishra was in the midst of a weeks-long protest against a fee hike at his New Delhi university in November 2019 when he received a perplexing call from one of India’s independent news outlets dedicated to debunking disinformation online.
The fact-checking reporter on the line told Mishra his photo was circulating on social media with a fake profile identifying him as Moinuddin, a 47-year old Muslim student from Kerala who had been studying at the university since 1989 — the year Mishra was born.
The post disparaged the graduate student, implying that he was a fake “revolutionary” who was there for cheap lodgings and free food, wasting taxpayers’ money. Mishra, who’s not from Kerala but India’s Uttar Pradesh state, was 30 at the time and pursuing a master’s degree in philosophy at Jawaharlal Nehru University.
“They were spreading the news deliberately because they wanted to defame our [fee protest] movement,” he alleged.
Mishra said he thinks it was an attempt to inflame religious tensions and smear the protesters.
Facebook’s disinformation problem in India
It’s an increasingly common occurrence in India, where the use of smartphones has exploded over the past five years. Along with that technological trend came a dramatic increase in the use of social media platforms such as Facebook and, more particularly, its messaging service WhatsApp, which is encrypted and therefore hard to monitor.
That’s led to a vast amount of disinformation pushed on the platforms just as serious concerns are being raised about Facebook’s ability to curb the spread of hate speech and inflammatory language on its site in India, home to the largest number of Facebook users in the world, at more than 300 million.
Policing disinformation, hate speech and inflammatory content is a world-wide problem for the social media network. But the issue is amplified in India, where, experts say, disinformation is often fuelled by political entities and is highly organized. This, when combined with India’s lack of widespread digital literacy and the 20 different local languages used on Facebook, makes disinformation run rampant and fact-checking extremely challenging.
‘It was traumatic’
In Mishra’s case, he wasn’t the subject of physical violence, but the flood of fake posts plunged him into a depression for months.
“It was traumatic, it was depressive, and I hope that nobody could face such a situation again,” he said. “I was seriously distressed.”
So was his family. As the false information spread like wildfire on Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp, his mother, who lives 700 kilometres away from her son in Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh, wouldn’t stop crying and telephoning to see if he was safe.
His wife was forced to field calls and messages from dozens of people, some who berated her.
Mishra’s friends took turns escorting him to his classes, in packs, to make sure he was safe from attack, and his social media accounts were inundated with abusive messages.
“It took nearly six months to get out of that distress,” he told CBC News. Two years later, the stigma still follows him. People jokingly introduce him as Moinuddin.
“It hurts, and it keeps me in some kind of trauma,” Mishra said.
Still, Mishra recognized he was lucky the online abuse, rumours and hate didn’t bleed into real life.
Facebook’s link to the Delhi riots
It did during the Delhi riots that gripped the northeast area of India’s capital in early 2020, when religious tension between largely Muslim demonstrators and Hindu nationalist groups spilled out onto the streets, leaving 53 dead — mainly Muslims.
The protestors were angry over a new law passed by India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government to fast-track citizenship for immigrants from religious minority groups, with the exception of Muslims.
Internal Facebook documents, leaked this year as part of the so-called Facebook Papers and shared with a consortium of media outlets, show the social media giant’s own employees were increasingly worried about the company’s ability to curb the spread of religious hatred and calls to violence in India.
“I’ve seen more images of dead people in the past three weeks than I’ve seen in my entire life,” wrote a Facebook researcher in 2019, after following recommendations generated by the social media network’s algorithms to a newly-created dummy test account, suggesting the user join groups and watch videos.
Another internal report compiled in 2020, shown to the Wall Street Journal, linked hateful rhetoric seen on Facebook to the Delhi riots, tracking a 300 per cent rise in previous levels of inflammatory content in the months leading up to the bloodshed.
The researchers wrote that Hindu and Muslim users in India reported being bombarded with content on Facebook and WhatsApp that encouraged conflict and violence, with incendiary and divisive content primarily targeting Muslims.
The ‘peace and harmony’ committee
The Delhi government set up a “Peace and Harmony” legislative committee in the aftermath of the 2020 Delhi riots, to look at ways to stop divisive rhetoric that prevents dialogue among religious communities.
It recently summoned a top Facebook India official, Shivnath Thukral, to answer questions about the platform’s fact-checking methods.
“Social media is being held responsible for many issues that run much deeper in society,” Thukral, the public policy director and manager of WhatsApp, told the committee on Nov. 18.
“As a consequential platform, we believe we should be scrutinized,” he added. “But we cannot be subjected to unfair trials based on selectively leaked documents which paint a false picture of our company.”
When asked about content moderation and, more particularly, the social network’s use of third-party fact-checking services in India, Thukral said Facebook, now known as Meta, did “not want to be the arbiter of truth” because they “do not have the expertise.”
He revealed that the company relies on 10 fact-checking partners in India, all certified by the International Fact-Checking Network.
“They cover 11 languages in the country. This is dedicated to India,” Thukral said.
“Only 11 languages?” was the answer from the chair of the committee, MLA Raghav Chadha.
Fact checking social media in India fraught with challenges
That’s only half of India’s 22 officially recognized languages, of which 20 are used on Facebook — a lack of resources that critics said could have lasting damage since a lot of misinformation is created in local languages and don’t surface to a wider arena that is more actively tracked.
In a statement, a Meta spokesperson wrote that there’s “no silver bullet solution to fighting misinformation,” and that the company continues to expand its fact-checking program and improve “internal technical capabilities.”
“The battle obviously becomes tougher as you look at languages in a country like India,” said Govindraj Ethiraj, the founder of the fact-checking company BOOM. “There’s no two ways about it.”
BOOM is one of the 10 companies that Facebook relies on for help tackling disinformation in India, and they work in three languages: English, Hindi and Bengali.
“Can social media platforms do more? Of course they can. Should we, as users or governments … push them harder? Sure, we should.”
But Ethiraj said while it’s easy to point the finger at social media companies and demand they do more, there’s no quick fix when the problem is insidious and there are many forces manipulating platforms to propagate disinformation. Disinformation is often fueled by political entities and it’s highly-organized in India, a constant presence and menace, according to Ethiraj.
“It always increases ahead of elections,” he said, both at the state level and during national election campaigns. “But in India, there are elections happening all the time. So in that sense, it’s a drip which is always a drip.”
“People seem to have all the time and inclination and resources to focus on this,” Ethiraj said, a dedication to spreading disinformation in incremental doses that surprises him more than anything else he’s seen since starting his company in 2014.
Combating the lack of digital literacy
India is also plagued by a lack of widespread digital literacy, and several groups are trying to address this.
“The misinformation ecosystem is huge in India with social media being what it is,” said Varadarajan Ananthakrishnan, of the New Delhi-based DataLEADS, which trains people to spot fake news and break down where posts originate.
His aim is to empower regular Indians, students, as well as university professionals or journalists, with the tools to help them recognize and stop fake stories, to “not let misinformation cascade from their point onwards.” NGOs are also stepping in to do the same, as are some schools, stopping the spread of misinformation at the source, rather than waiting and reacting once the false information is already out there.
As the Mumbai BOOM team of fact-checkers worked diligently around him, Ethiraj struggled to answer whether misinformation in India is getting better or worse. The pandemic has provoked a deluge of posts touting fake cures, doctored quotes, and wild conspiracy theories in the country that studies show is the world’s top source of COVID-19 misinformation.
“The thing about the purveyors of misinformation out there, is they get smart, too, and that’s why misinformation is so dangerous,” he said, adding that while the amount of misinformation might come down, it becomes more targeted.
“Maybe the intent to cause harm is much higher than ever before,” Ethiraj remarked.
“It’s difficult to say whether it’s getting worse or it’s just become an integral part of our lives and everything that we consume.”