India’s home-grown fake news spreads on WhatsApp

Unlike in the West, online fake news gets only a limited readership in India but the country has 200 million active WhatsApp users, and at least 300 million Indians use smartphones that support the popular messaging service.

An Indian onlooker checking his mobile phone. The country has 200 million active WhatsApp users, and at least 300 million Indians use smartphones that support the popular messaging service and more than a billion people own mobile phones that support basic text messaging. Indranil Mukherjee/AFP Photo
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Amid a worldwide torrent of fake news, India is witnessing its own, home-grown version: misinformation or outright hoaxes spread through text and multimedia messages, mainly via WhatsApp.

Three months ago, Neeraja Swaminathan, a 25-year-old doctor in the city of Chennai, received a message on WhatsApp warning that a new paracetamol tablet on the market contained the deadly Machupo virus.

“Please share this message, for all people and family,” the message urged. “I’ve done my part, now it’s your turn.”

Ms Swaminathan said she received such messages on WhatsApp all the time, forwarded by friends who want her opinion on how seriously they should treat them.

“There are lots of forwards about either the supremely exaggerated health benefits or risks of some food items,” she said. “I can’t believe people fall for things like this.”

Unlike in the West, online fake news gets only a limited readership in India.

But the country has 200 million active WhatsApp users, and at least 300 million Indians use smartphones that support the popular messaging service. More than a billion people own mobile phones that support basic text messaging.

WhatsApp is a perfect medium for rumour. Even users who are not fully literate can see doctored videos or fake photos.

These hoaxes can sometimes be picked up by television news channels waiting for their next scoop, lending them substance - but the effects can be disastrous.

In December, police in Hyderabad arrested a 22-year-old student for starting a WhatsApp rumour that a popular city eatery was illicitly serving dog meat. The restaurant’s business fell dramatically, prompting its owner to file defamation charges.

Rumours abound on all manner of subjects: conspiracy theories about politicians; the benefits or disadvantages of government schemes; leopards prowling city streets; red alerts for terrorist attacks; astronomical oddities; or religious propaganda.

Concerned by the rising tide of hoaxes on WhatsApp, Shammas Oliyath started a blog in 2015 to debunk or verify some of the messages he received.

Last August, the Bengaluru-based IBM employee joined Bal Krishn Birla, an internet entrepreneur, to set up Check4Spam.com, inspired by the US fact-checking website Snopes.com. Their site provides a phone number to which people can forward messages they wish to verify.

“Right now, we’re sent around 200 messages or more every day,” Mr Oliyath said. “We aren’t able to catch up. We have so much pending work that we’ve had to bring on six volunteers to help.”

Mr Oliyath follows a routine. During his lunch break, he deals with queries that he has confirmed or debunked, sending a link in response. Three out of five messages are about WhatsApp forwards that he has tackled before.

At night he sits down to investigate more queries, trawling through Google for information that looks authentic. Photographs are harder to verify, he said. “Even if we do a reverse image search, a hoax might have circulated to such an extent that it fills the first 15 or so pages of search results. You have to have patience for this.”

Mr Oliyath and his team find that the content of 70 to 80 per cent of the messages sent to them are false, ranging from fanciful exaggeration to straight-out propaganda.

Among the more bizarre cases he has handled was one from January: an item of purported news that even India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) linked to on its social media accounts.

A news channel’s website reported that the UAE Government had seized the Dubai assets of Dawood Ibrahim, a fugitive Indian gangster. Other media outlets picked up the story, claiming it to be a “major diplomatic success” for prime minister Narendra Modi.

But Mr Oliyath noticed that the original story online referred to a previous report by the same news channel – except that the previous report was nowhere to be found on the internet. “I didn’t find another authentic source, so I labelled this as fake,” he said. “Even when other mainstream media reports came out, we stood by our judgment, and we were right.” The reports were later denied by Indian government officials.

Of late, the messages he has received tend to skew towards political or communal propaganda – rumours that have the potential to incite riots or violence. The volume of forwards, he said, “is going a little out of control. Today I have 2,500 unread messages.”

Mr Oliyath hopes to automate his service to some extent, perhaps by introducing an app that can respond instantly to queries about hoaxes that have already been debunked.

He said it was important to continue his work. “People get these messages, and they are so busy that they don’t spend any time finding out the truth. If something fits with what they believe, they feel comfortable and trust it. And that isn’t a good thing.”

ssubramanian@thenational.ae