Monday, April 16, 2018

News: real, old and fake

It is not that there are a lot more things -- good and bad -- happening in the world now. We are just getting to know them, since we have the internet, mobile phones and social media. Thanks to these three innovations, we also speak a lot more, we write a lot more, we hear a lot more, and we read a lot more today.

Earlier too we had fake news. But we generally called them rumours, gossip, lies etc. Today, they have a new medium to spread, which is faster and reaches more people, that too directly. Now, these fast-spreading rumours and lies have a fanciful term.

WhatsApp, Facebook are not news sources

Nowadays you find many forwards and shared posts, especially on WhatsApp groups. It's like those forwards we used to see in emails, some 15 to 20 years ago, when emails were new to all of us.

There is no idea from where the information contained in them have been sourced. There will be no credit or no indication who the author is or who has created a particular video.

There are cases of old news clippings doing the rounds on WhatsApp. A few months ago, I received a forwarded message from my sister-in-law in Bhopal that the stage during a school function in Bengaluru collapsed killing many children. There was a clipping of TV news channel as well with the message. I immediately realised that it was an incident that happened in February 2016. No one had died. Some people have uploaded those clips on Youtube in January this year, giving the impression that it happened this year.

People keep saying, "I read it on WhatsApp" or "I saw it on Facebook", giving one an impression that WhatsApp and Facebook are news sources. But, they are only platforms on which we read information put out by different people -- just as Google is not a website, and is only a search engine that gets you relevant websites for you to read. What I mean is WhatsApp and Facebook are not equivalents of a BBC or a Fox News or an NYT.

Unlike social media (where mostly individuals post information), institutional media have in place a system where information goes through multiple people who not only fact-check them, but also vet the information, before they reach the public domain. News media organisations are not supposed to put out unverified information.

Next time you read something of major consequence or import, on WhatsApp or Facebook, or any platform for that matter, it may be a good idea to see who has posted that. Is that information from a credible source?

How do you know if a source is credible?

There are a few generally accepted parameters. One, a well-known or reputed institution. Like, if it's some information related to astronomy, see if it's from any space-related organisation, like NASA or ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation). Two, a well-known or reputed person, or someone who is occupying a position of some responsibility.

Another source which is considered credible, is 'institutional media'. By that I mean news organisations. For example, Reuters, Associated Press, Press Trust of India, BBC, Fox News, NYT, The Hindustan Times, The Times of India, etc. I am using the term 'institutional media' to differentiate it from 'social media'. Earlier, by media, we understood it as only 'institutional media'.

The professional-amateurs

Having said that, one should remember that sources of information need not be only professional organisations or professional individuals. One can't be biased against amateurs, just because their chosen field of specialisation is not their professional field.

For example, there could be a bank executive who is a great fan of movies. Or a professional dancer who is very knowledgeable about West Asia (why not?) Or a student who is a cricket enthusiast. They could be actually authorities on those subjects. They might be posting on social media about their favourite topics. More importantly, they might also be ensuring that what they post is factually correct, and might even go to the extent of attributing information to sources, like a professional journalist is expected to do.

Such people have come to be known as 'professional amateurs'.

So, let us not be totally dismissive about social media, with the comment that all that appears in social media is wrong and fake news. Actually, some of the big stories have broken on social media. A few that I can remember are:

There are plenty of such examples. In fact, journalists get tipped off by tweets and Facebook posts.

To err is human

Not that "credible" sources can't go wrong. There have been cases of people occupying official positions like a Prime Minister, and media having got their facts wrong. But those are famous exceptions rather than the rule. One famous example:
  • In March 1979, Prime Minister Morarji Desai announced in the Lok Sabha (Lower House of Parliament) that Jayaprakash Narayan (the architect of opposition unity against Indira Gandhi) was dead. All India Radio and news agencies put out the news. But JP was still alive. He passed away in October that year.
How to check fake news

Today, thanks to Twitter and Facebook, in a sense everyone is a journalist. So, just as professional journalists are expected to fact-check information, all of us too have to fact-check what we see and read on WhatsApp or Facebook.

And, please don't forward any information (especially those that are of critical implication) that you haven't verified yourself.

It's better not to have an unverified information passed around, than to spread wrong information.

(This post is a part of the "Blogging from A to Z Challenge April 2018.")


Update on April 17

What a stunning coincidence this is, just within a day of writing the above post.

When I was travelling by the Metro today, I overheard the man sitting next to me telling someone on the phone that war has broken out between Russia and Britain. He was asking the other person to check out BBC, and that it the news is all over the place.

I was startled hearing this, and looked at him. Just before leaving home I had checked the news channels. I have half a dozen news apps on my phone, and I had not seen any notification. Even as he was speaking I opened the BBC and NYT apps. There was nothing there.

Since he had seen me looking at him, while he was talking, after his conversation, he repeated what he had spoken on the phone. I asked him where did he get to know this. He said WhatsApp, and opened the message. It was a BBC news clip. I was really surprised. He started playing it.

It was a BBC Breaking News alert about a Russian jet being shot down by NATO forces near the coast of Latvia. I immediately realised it was an old clip. I told him, "The Syrian conflict has been going on for seven years. And there have many such serious incidents in the past." I couldn't recollect when this incident happened.

I did a quick web search with the key words "latvia russian plane shot down" It was an incident that happened in 2015. I found a Youtube clip that was uploaded in 2017, and it is that clip that is circulating on WhatsApp. Why it is getting circulated is a no brainer: the ongoing crisis over chemical attack and the US missile strike in response.

He was concerned because his brother-in-law is leaving for London this evening, he told me. He said he was speaking to his mom, and he now looked very relieved. He called his mom, and said it was fake news.

I told him never ever believe any such news that comes as WhatsApp forwards, unless doing a web search and confirming with a credible source.


  1. Interesting and informative post. Loved it. I smile at people who sincerely believe information in whatsapp is a fact.

  2. Thanks, SG. It's truly startling how people believe whatever they see on WhatsApp.

  3. Oh yes, WhatsApp forwards are the gospel truths for many. I believe it is the primary medium for the spread of misinformation in India. We must validate news before forwarding it to 10 groups.
    Enjoyed reading this post, Pradeep, very interesting and informative too!

  4. A much needed post in todays times and might I add you have excelled as a professional-amateur. Applaud your civic sense.

  5. Brilliantly put! It is a constant struggle to get my parents and in laws to understand that Whatsapp is not a news source. It is a daily battle. It is very apt post :)