During the recently concluded Digipub World, founders of startups shared their success stories through the F/10 series - a series 10-minute talks each, by the founders of content startups. The first F/10 series session was presented by Pratik Sinha, founder of Alt News on Day One of the convention.
Sinha started his talk by bringing up the fact that content creation in today's time has become easy and that buying a domain has become easier too. He mentioned that one can create a website in half an hour's time and start putting out absolutely any content one wants. Anybody can create a few Facebook pages on any topic to create a dialogue and get a lot of traction, and one can also start adding more links to the content or put absolute fictional content and watch it fly. But all of this has also led to the arrival of 'fake news'.
Quoting a few examples of fake news, which has led to a lot of unruly incidents in the recent past, Sinha said he was shocked to learn about a class 12 student who was making Rs. 40,000 from a fake news website. "The boy put out a fake news piece stating that five fatwas were issued against a Zee News anchor. Eventually, I got in touch with this boy. The boy told me that he knows what he is doing and that it is the only way for him to make money - his father has a small farm at a village in Ranchi and earns merely Rs. 6,000 a month. But this boy was making Rs. 40,000 purely on the back of fake news. So, with the arrival of the digital age, fake news has also arrived," Sinha said.
In terms of mobile data, Sinha mentioned that there are statistics which suggest that YoY (year-on-year) increase in the number of rural internet users is 22 percent while for urban internet users it is just seven percent. It means we have a lot of first-time internet users being added to the pool and while people in rural areas may own a phone worth Rs. 1,500 (which may only allow for WhatsApp), they (the rural masses) have no clue that the technology they are using is 30 years old and has many pitfalls, went Sinha's argument. "In one of the incidents in Jharkhand, somebody just spread a rumour about a man whose kids were going to be abducted. This led to the lynching of seven people. This means even a WhatsApp rumour can get a person killed," Sinha cautioned.
He added, "Recently, in West Bengal a morphed image of Kaaba Sharif was put on WhatsApp; it led to people from the minority community coming out on the streets and ultimately leading to a riot-like situation. In another such incident, when India lost to Pakistan in an important Champions Trophy match, many videos were circulated showing Indian Muslims celebrating. However, of all the videos, only one was genuine and that was from Kashmir. So, we did that story. Unfortunately, that video went on and on for almost 10 days. In this way, rumours travel really fast."
Speaking about Alt News, that has crossed more than five million views in the past seven months (since it published its first story in February 2017), Sinha said, "We, a three-member team at Alt News, came up with the idea to (combat) what fake news is doing to society. We are now a registered company and will soon be going out for crowd-funding. We have seen a lot of traction; this shows people want to know whether something is fake or not. That's because there's more than just political fake news...there's enough fake news on entertainment, business and medicine as well."
To conclude, Sinha mentioned that today, fake news is used to skew electoral outcomes and opined that unless the Centre and State governments take measures against it, considering how detrimental it is for the cause of democracy, multiple political parties will start publishing fake news. Apart from what's happening on social networking platforms, even some big media houses are relying on fake news.
"I hope, as digital media grows in India, there are more and more such websites that publish factual information, so that people are able to understand what to believe and what not to. It's time we took fake news more seriously."