May 13, 2022

Fact-checkers in India identified political falsehoods, communal rumors across the country’s hyper-local cultures and “miracle cures” that hawk foods as replacements for modern medicine as broad trends of misinformation in the country. Although these were the trends of the moment, fact-checkers said topics will likely shift with the cultural and political landscape, since misinformation everywhere tracks with current affairs.

While mis- and disinformation spread chiefly on WhatsApp in a host of different groups, fact-checkers identified Facebook as the second largest culprit.

“I think the most misinformation and disinformation probably comes from family WhatsApp groups,” said Coreena Suares, editor of NewsMeter, a fact-checking and digital media platform based in Hyderabad, India, “because there will always be that one uncle, that one auntie, who doesn’t even want to verify, but still wants to circulate it.”

Suares said the behavior of mass circulating messages in multiple WhatsApp groups (“forwarding to 10 groups, 15 groups”) without verifying the content is common in India. “WhatsApp University” has even become a derisive expression in India, mockingly deployed by fact-checkers to refer to the “education” people think they receive through the app.

“Everyone has a cell phone; everyone has WhatsApp,” Suares said. “Today, the WhatsApp University has the highest number of graduates.”

While communal narratives, or stories that spread in local communities with shared cultures or politics, “are a common theme across the country, state-specific issues can lead to localized narratives,” said Bharath Guniganti, head of fact-checking projects with Factly, a South Indian fact-checking organization and verified signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network. “Many in the country treat food as medicine, and many miracle cures were attributed to the food one consumes; this trend was very significant during the times of COVID.”

Factly is issuing weekly trend reports to capture the latest in the world of misinformation. At the moment, the reports are solely for internal purposes, shared with several of Factly’s clients “to update them on what’s happening in the misinformation space.” But Guniganti said the organization is leaving the possibility open of making future trend reports public.

“The broad trends are common knowledge, but if we want to go back and do some detailed research down the line on what’s been happening, these would be useful,” Guniganti said. “Or one year down the line, you want to see what happened in 2022, all these trend reports could help you get some insights.”

One of the unique challenges to fact-checking in India, Guniganti said, is its diversity.

“Each state in the country has its own language, culture and political environment. So it becomes challenging to monitor and address these diversified narratives,” Guniganti said.

Other phenomena happening in India are the use of staged videos, or repurposed videos to advance narratives between communities in conflict with one another.

“The one thing which refuses to go away is these claims with community spin, that keep returning in different shapes,” said Bal Krishna with India Today, a leading media company in India. “Whatever the main theme of the day – whether there is a war in Ukraine or Afghanistan, or a global pandemic, they spin it and start circulating that.”

Krishna described videos of petty crimes being staged, made to look like CCTV camera footage, and attributed to minority groups, as well as legitimate incidents from years ago re-circulated with a communal narrative.

“Whenever these spins are done, it often helps one party,” Krishna said. “The incidents often look social on the face of them, but are in fact political.”

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Seth Smalley is a reporter at Poynter and the IFCN. Get in touch at seth@poynter.org or on Twitter @sethsalex.
Seth Smalley

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