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Catching viral misinformation early: Factly’s tipline use in India

Factly, a verified signatory of the International Fact-Checking Network’s (IFCN) Code of Principles is a leading fact-checking group in India and in the Telugu speaking states of the country. Since 2013, the organization has been involved in transforming the public information landscape in India by improving access & understanding of the common public about important government data/information. In this interview, we speak to Rakesh Dubbudu, founder and Editorial Lead of Factly, about how Factly came about, ventured into fact-checking and the use of their WhatsApp tipline to address misinformation.

1. What is the story behind Factly and how did you venture into fact-checking?

I have been part of the larger movement for transparency & accountability in government using tools such as the Right to Information (RTI) in India for the last 16 years. As a result, I came across a lot of government data/information with the use of RTI. It was an individual effort to collate important information/data and make people aware of what was happening. Sometime in 2013 or so, I felt the need to institutionalise these efforts. In other words, I strongly felt the need to inculcate the habit of checking facts/data and making them part of any societal discourse. That’s how Factly was born. We began doing serious work on data journalism in 2015 and did on and off fact-checking to begin with. We then realized that fact-checking is a natural extension of the work that we were doing and thus started doing fact-checking consistently and seriously in mid 2018.

2.  You address misinformation in the Telugu speaking states of India. Do you see a stark difference in regional / local misinformation and that of a national level? Are different strategies required in these cases?

Yes, there are differences to the extent that politics is different in these states as both have regional parties at the helm of affairs and not national parties. While misinformation at the national level is also seen, there is a  different kind of misinformation specific to the politics, culture, and the situation in the two Telugu speaking states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. Strategies have to be different, especially in the case of hyperlocal misinformation where it is difficult to find relevant information on the internet. We have to get in touch with local authorities, look up relevant vernacular media and track hyperlocal media to fact-check such claims.

3.  Misinformation is a problem across platforms and in offline spaces as well. What strategies do you adopt to address misinformation in a holistic manner?

Even in this age of hyperconnectivity & internet penetration, we do come across some age-old methods of spreading misinformation which have to be dealt with differently. For instance, we have come across at least five cases in which physical letters were sent to Sarpanches (village heads) in villages across the country asking them to nominate five youngsters from the village for a job under a government scheme. They were also asked to send a demand draft (DD) with a certain amount in each of the cases. We know that this happened in at least five states in different parts of the country. There was no digital trace of any of these organizations. Hence, while fact-checking these was fairly simple, the dissemination of information and strategy had to be different. We got in touch with law enforcement authorities in different states asking them to track down these people. So, it must be a comprehensive strategy to address misinformation across spaces.

4.  You run a WhatsApp tipline for users to send verification requests. How important is it to your fact-check work?

We have been running the WhatsApp tipline (+91 92470 52470)  for quite some time now. Over time, it has become an important source to understand what is going viral in encrypted platforms like WhatsApp, especially in Telugu. There are many users who make it a point to send any claim they receive to the tipline. In that sense, the tipline gives us a first-hand view of what is going viral and has become a major source for tracking viral claims.

5. How have you been promoting the tipline to reach more people?

We have shared the tipline number across platforms like on every story on the website and on Facebook, Instagram, Telegram etc. We also ask those who share claims through various means like email or other social media, to send it on our tipline so that they make it a habit to use the tipline more often.

6. How have you been using Meedan’s Check in managing your fact-checking work and workflow? What more do you expect Check to do?

Like I said before, it has now become an integral part of our daily workflow in terms of tracking claims, prioritizing which ones to fact-check based on the submissions to the tipline etc. As we go ahead, we expect Check to use technology to improve matching of content in regional languages so that the speed of fact-checking improves.

7.  Any announcements or new initiatives that you’d like to share with us?

We are in the final stages of developing an online course for fact-checking in Telugu. We have divided the entire course into three modules. The course is designed in such a way that the basic module is relevant to anyone who is 14 years or older and people would not need any prior knowledge or expertise. The basic module is good enough to address a large part of the misinformation people come across. We are working on partnering with universities and education boards to take it to a large section of the population.

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