As misinformation shoots up on social media platforms, there’s a parallel emergence of an alert audience, which is conscious of the information it’s consuming.
Borrowing from the skills they employ at their own professions, several citizens have taken up the task of curbing misinformation especially with the growing concerns of information around COVID-19.
“We try to act as a bridge between users and fact-checking websites,” says Mohammed Zeeshan Fatmi, founder of FightFakeNews.live.
A digital marketer based out of Bengaluru, Zeeshan has always been interested in fact-checking the information he received on the several WhatsApp groups that he is a part of. When the pandemic struck, he decided to take his hobby and turn it into a useful website for users around India.
“As a digital marketer, I know how to look for information and use Google at its best.”Mohammed Zeeshan Fatmi, FightFakeNews
Their journey began with an online hackathon, ‘Coronathon’ hosted by a software company, to come up with technical solutions to the COVID-19 crisis.
Zeeshan and his team submitted the ‘FightFakeNews’ website as one of the projects. Since then, they have also come up with bots on WhatsApp and Telegram that allow users to submit their queries.
While the queries began with WhatsApp forwards about the virus, Zeeshan soon found himself debunking several other claims around political parties and sports.
Against ‘Magical Paapads’ and Herbal Cures: Experts Pitch in Too
While Zeeshan runs his WhatsApp bot, experts from various medical fields like doctors, researchers, public health experts, engineers and students, recognised a need to provide accurate information and act as scientific interpreters for the public at large.
Over 500 volunteers came together to form the citizen-led initiative, ‘Indian Scientists Response to COVID-19 (ISRC)’.
“The initiative tries to prevent misconceptions around the virus especially in the Indian context,” says Professor Sandhya Koushika, a founding member ISRC and a neuroscientist at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai.
A major part of ISRC involves reaching out to the community by publishing their work in several regional languages, apart from English and Hindi, like Tamil, Malayalam, Marathi, Kannada and Bengali.
When asked how they identify misinformation, Prof. Koushika spoke about the unproven cures spreading on Twitter and the media.
“We also focus on cures, reminding people that there is no evidence for particular medicines or foods. And of course, there are the family WhatsApp groups,” she adds.
You can view an example of ISRC’s hoax busting here.
The idea came about when Prof Koushika and a bunch of other scientists attended a webinar by US’ National Academy of Medicine and The American Public Health Association, and came to realise that no scientific organisation in India is putting out such information.
“The hope is that in all the noise out there, we can make a credible contribution.”Prof Koushika, ISRC
‘Reducing The Chances of Them Believing Rumours’
Carrying Prof Koushika’s hope, a Bengaluru-based citizen-activist group, Whitefield Rising, is also fighting misinformation by turning the source of fake news, WhatsApp, into a credible source of verified information through their daily bulletin broadcast.
The daily updates are prepared from credible sources like the media bulletin issued by the Government of Karnataka, its portals, and reliable figures around India and the world regarding COVID-19.
The summary goes to every member of the WhatsApp broadcast group, Facebook and other local groups.
Information around change in the rules of lockdown or quarantine, and other immediate updates are also given on these groups and social media.
The organisation also focuses on actively debunking rumours on Twitter and WhatsApp.
“For instance, a rumour spread that an employee of a major supermarket here, has tested positive and because of that, many people could have come in contact with the virus. People got really scared. We immediately reached out to the supermarket owners and the police to verify that the employee had not even visited the supermarket three weeks prior to his test. There was no contamination,” Bagrodia explained.
Media Literacy and Right Tools: How You Can Help
Professional fact-checkers have also recognised the need for a larger response to misinformation.
Cristina Tardáguila, the associate director of the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN), writes how she became a 'personal' fact-checker for her friends and family in the time of the pandemic.
She urged professional fact-checkers to share 'credible databases and tools' to teach people how to combat fake news.
The International Journalists' Network reported, "Equipped with the right tools and methods, anyone can become a skilled fact-checker and help stem the tide of misinformation on the web."
Like FightFakeNews or Whitefield Rising, checking the credibility of information sources and amplifying the work of fact-checkers is a simple way to curb the spread of misinformation.
If you see a dubious piece of news, flag it to professional fact-checkers and share their findings on the social media.
What Do The Studies Say?
Studies have also shown that volunteer fact-checkers can be a boon to the fight against fake news.
Harvard’s journal, The HKS Misinformation Review published a study by Boston University’s researchers, Hyunuk Kim and Dylan Walker on “Leveraging volunteer fact checking to identify misinformation about COVID-19 in social media”.
The study aimed at identifying misinformation around the virus, on social media, through keywords used by “volunteer fact-checkers,” that is, users who correct it through official advisories or fact-checks.
The strategy helped the researchers identify “pockets in social media where misinformation resides”.
Fact-checked tweets usually belonged to accounts whose peers were more likely to believe in and share misinformation as well.
In the following image, the volunteer fact-checker's tweet (blue dot) helped researchers find the parent tweet with the misinformation (red dot), leading them to friends and followers of the account, also sharing misinformation.
It became easier to identify fake news by searching commonly identified texts in health advisories or fact-checks, posted by citizens, than to rely on usually ambiguous and varied keywords in the misinformation.
Thus, the researchers suggest a “collaborative system” that involves volunteer fact-checkers in identifying and thus, combating misinformation.
Another study, “Fighting misinformation on social media using crowdsourced judgements of news source quality,” by Gordon Pennycook and David G Rand looked at the “laypeople’s judgements” as “reliable indicators of quality” of information sources.
The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the official journal of the National Academy of Sciences in the US.
They put forward headlines from different news sources asking a sample of participants to rank them as:
- 'hyperpartisan coverage’
- 'blatantly false’
The researchers found that the participants' reports were similar to the rankings of professional fact-checkers.
The study concluded that keeping in mind the limitation of familiarity with a news source, using crowdsourced judgement to estimate reliability of news “shows promise” in combating misinformation on social media.
Long-Hours, Costs & Disbelief: The Fight Isn't Easy
While volunteer fact-checking shows promise in studies, the journey hasn't been easy.
The three citizen-led initiatives stated how dabbling between long-hours at their jobs and volunteering can be cumbersome at times. While the work brings in an immense amount of satisfaction, it is a high-demanding job, with no monetary returns.
FightFakeNews’ Zeeshan found his team dwindling as months went by, and getting a verified business account on WhatsApp turned out to be costly. Despite that, he chose not to give up. He now operates by himself and his trusted friend from Pune, answering anywhere between three to 25 queries a day.
ISRC has had to deal with its share of nay-sayers on social media. Prof Koushika pointed out how despite the lack of scientific evidence, people strongly hold on to their beliefs.
“We are not trying to stigmatise anybody or call out a particular person. People get upset when we don’t speak against the Chinese. We also got a lot of flak when we started commenting on things like herbal remedies. Everybody wants to have a feeling that they can help themselves. I might have a personal opinion but if there’s no scientific evidence, I can’t comment on it.”Prof Koushika, ISRC
Whitefield Rising’s Pravir Bagrodia also shared how once their credibility was undermined when a miscreant had photoshopped on-to the credible information passed on by the group.
“We got to know of it immediately and had to issue a clarification to combat it,” he says.
Their continued efforts in the time of crisis, gives us a sense of hope that we aren’t alone in this fight against fake news and our audience is becoming increasingly alert to the spread of misinformation as well.