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How two engineers alarmed by fake news teamed up to tackle it

Led by its founders, Mohammed Zubair and Pratik Sinha, AltNews has criticised supporters and officials of the BJP for their statements targeting minorities

Suhasini Raj Ahmedabad Published 06.10.22, 02:00 AM
Mohammad Zubair (left) and Pratik Sinha.

Mohammad Zubair (left) and Pratik Sinha. File Photo

The two men were unlikely candidates to work in the news business.

Neither had a background in journalism, but both were alarmed with the surge of misinformation in India that followed the rise of Narendra Modi as Prime Minister. To take on this problem, the men, both engineers, started AltNews in 2017.


Since then, AltNews has become a leading fact checker in India, debunking rumours on social media that often spiral onto television news, including those about child-kidnapping gangs and that Muslims were spreading Covid. Calling out hate speech has also become part of the site’s work as it has taken aim at viral posts that inflame sectarian tensions and that sometimes spur violent mobs to attack innocent people.

Led by its founders, Mohammed Zubair and Pratik Sinha, AltNews has criticised supporters and officials of the BJP for their statements targeting minorities.

But in a reflection of the growing concerns about the independence and freedom of the news media in India, Zubair has landed in the authorities’ cross hairs. He was arrested on charges of hurting religious sentiments and is being investigated by the police after anonymous critics and BJP officials accused him of spreading communal unrest.

“People in power want to shut me up for exposing their propaganda, their lies and their hate campaigns,” Zubair, 40, said in an interview. “They want to scare other journalists and activists by targeting me.”

Zubair said that rather than amplifying misinformation and hate speech, he was trying to highlight them so the authorities could take action. Still, he worried for his family’s safety this summer as #arrestzubair trended on Twitter. He temporarily stopped his children from riding their bicycles outside and from going to school.

The media landscape in India started to change when Modi came to power in 2014. His party realised the potential of reaching voters directly via social media and set about moulding public perception on platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook.

Critics say that engagement, and later copycat efforts from other political parties, lacked the filter of a traditional news organisation and targeted millions of people who were using the Internet for the first time.

“I could also see that propaganda was building up and how misinformation was part of that,” said Sinha, then a software engineer in Ahmedabad, who started debunking misleading photographs. He was not the first person in his family to take on Modi’s acolytes; his parents were activists who had faulted Modi for not doing enough to stop violence against Muslims in the deadly Gujarat riots of 2002, when he was chief minister.

Around the same time in Bangalore, Zubair, an engineer from a family of farmers, was also taken aback by the increasing spread of misinformation among Indians. His first attempt at tackling the problem was with satire, creating a social media account that was a parody of a BJP leader. His musings attracted an audience, and soon he crossed paths with Sinha.

They set up an office in Sinha’s home in Ahmedabad, slowly expanding their team to more than a dozen people, including fact checkers with media backgrounds and video producers. Sinha’s mother, Nirjhari Sinha, who had run a non-profit, also joined AltNews, which publishes content in English and Hindi and has drawn about 80 million pageviews so far. It is non-partisan and non-sectarian.

“They are a consistent and thorough voice in myth-busting and fact-checking,” said Anant Nath, the editor of Caravan, a monthly magazine. “They are doing very important work establishing public accuracy.”

AltNews was among more than a handful of websites that emerged in India in the past decade to counter misinformation that was spreading on the Internet. “The mainstream media had failed to counter these narratives,” said Jency Jacob, the managing editor of BOOM, another Indian fact-checking website. “In India, disinformation often takes the worst turn towards building hate against certain vulnerable sections of society.”

And the work is only getting harder. Government data show a nearly threefold rise in India of instances of “fake news” and “rumours” from 2019 to 2020.

Pratik Sinha, 40, said that although it was tough finding where much of the bad information originated, all political parties used it to further their political agendas. “But the party benefiting most from it was the BJP — that much one can say,” he said.

Earlier this year, Zubair highlighted comments made by a BJP official that many Muslims considered as insulting to the Prophet Muhammad. The incident became a diplomatic embarrassment for Modi after Muslim nations demanded an apology, which the official did offer. Zubair has also called out extremist Hindus who urged the killing of Muslims.

A BJP spokesman, Tom Vadakkan, rejected the assertion that the party benefited from misinformation.

Some critics say AltNews staff members aren’t journalists — four of 14 staff members have journalism degrees — and point to Zubair’s opinionated and sometimes abrasive tweets as evidence. This summer, Zubair was jailed after an anonymous Twitter user, citing a tweet from 2018, accused him of insulting a Hindu God and hurting religious sentiments. He was eventually granted bail but is still being investigated in that case.

But despite this turmoil for AltNews, which is run by the founders’ non-profit company, Pravda Media Foundation, supporters have stood by it. Donations that fund the site have remained steady, through contributions that average $12 (Rs 980) a month per person.

“What’s helping AltNews sustain are small donations. This is what scares them,” Sinha said of the site’s critics.

At the Ahmedabad office one recent morning, Zubair, Sinha and the rest of the team huddled to discuss which news and information to track, prioritising whatever might have the potential to cause harm. They scoured WhatsApp groups for leads. Nirjhari Sinha worked with an accountant on AltNews’s finances.

Nearby, another employee, Kinjal Parmar, replayed a viral video of a mob beating a man viciously, frame by frame. Soon she reaffirmed the conclusion her co-workers had reached: The footage was of a personal dispute, not of a Muslim man’s lynching. Next, she posted an article on the AltNews site that corrected the record, reducing the chances that the video would inflame communal tensions.

Parmar, who trained as a journalist, said no special skills were needed to be a fact checker, except an eye for spotting what’s amiss. She said the work was a mission for her.

(New York Times News Service)

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