Ordinary Indians are fueling the country’s fake-news crisis

Think before you hit send.
Think before you hit send.
Image: Reuters/Saumya Khandelwal
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Indians distrustful of mainstream news outlets are spreading information from alternative sources without verifying it. In doing so, they believe themselves to be promoting the “real story,” according to research conducted by the BBC.

The respondents they studied relied on markers like the kind of images in a message or who sent it to them to decide if it was worth sharing on Facebook or WhatsApp. As a result, messages from friends and family members were often assumed to be trustworthy, irrespective of the origin.

Nearly 37% of messages sent on WhatsApp were about “scams and scares” related to technology and conspiracies, among other things, while about 30% could be categorised under nationalism, including “common man” stories and cultural preservation, the BBC said.

The BBC researchers interviewed 80 people in three countries—India, Nigeria, and Kenya—over a seven-day period, analysing their media consumption habits, and studying how they used Facebook and WhatsApp on their phones to share information. They found that respondents in all three countries made little effort to figure out the original source for what they shared.

Previous research by the BBC has shown that nearly 72% of Indians struggled to distinguish real information from made-up stories. Put together, these results suggest the dire need for greater digital literacy in India, coming amidst growing concerns over the deadly consequences of fake news in the country.

India has recently witnessed several shocking incidents of lynchings caused by the spread of rumours over WhatsApp. In response, the Indian government has issued stern warnings to the Facebook-owned messaging service, which has limited the number of times a message can be forwarded in the country. But with national elections coming up in India in the next few months, the political consequences of misinformation could be enormous.

The BBC researchers also looked at around 16,000 Twitter accounts and 3,000 Facebook pages to study how fake news is polarised in India. Their results indicated a “strong and coherent” promotion of right-wing messages, while left-wing fake news networks were found to be less organised and less effective.

Earlier this year, researchers at Oxford University had warned that India’s fake-news crisis and the weaponisation of social media would only intensify in the election year.