Fact-checking / India Today Fact Check: Impact, vision and challenges
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In 2019 Meedan launched the End-to-end fact-checking project using the WhatsApp Business API. We partnered with WhatsApp, Facebook and Facebook’s third party fact-checking organizations (3PFCs) from India, Brazil and Africa to run WhatsApp tiplines that are serviced by Check, Meedan’s open-source platform that supports fact-checking and annotation. We’ve launched a series to share insights on program and product innovations from the end-to-end fact-checking project. We also have interviews that capture our partners’ experiences. This post is part of the interview series.

Among our largest 3PFC partners in the project is India Today Fact Check, located in India. They are part of TV Today Network Ltd, a network that consists of several news channels. The India Today Fact Check section is managed independently from the editorial operations of the India Today Group.

Balkrishna leads the Fact Check team at the India Today Group. Bala, as he is popularly called, tells us about India Today Fact Check’s vision, impact and challenges in this interview.

1. When did India Today start its fact-checking section and what was the reason for setting up a separate fact-check section?

The purpose of creating a separate fact-check department was two-fold. First, to create awareness among the entire editorial staff of the group about the serious problem of misinformation and fake news being dished out, mostly through social media. In some media verticals such as television channels, journalists have to work under tremendous pressure of cutthroat competition, deadlines and breaking news. The idea was to sensitize them about the menace of fake news so that the number of mistakes could be reduced.

The second motive was to capitalize on the huge reach of our brands, India Today and Aaj Tak, two of India’s most popular news channels, and fight misinformation circulating on social media. We wanted to live up to the expectations of our readers and viewers who not only want credible information from us, but also expect us to warn them about hoaxes and fake news that they could possibly believe.

2. How does the work of the fact-check team impact or influence India Today’s larger work as a media group?

India Today Fact Check is mostly insulated from the overall editorial operations of the Group and works independently on a day to day basis. It directly reports to the vice-chairperson of the India Today Group. However, we help in verification of viral content if there is any specific request from any editorial team that is part of the Group. We also conduct in-house trainings on fact-checking.

3. As someone who has witnessed large- scale misinformation storms, which storm was the most turbulent and why (ref: election, terror attacks, pandemic, protests).

Misinformation related to the COVID-19 pandemic was the most challenging. The reason being, COVID-19 misinformation directly affects the lives of every individual. It was a matter of life and death in a true sense. Things became even more tricky when misinformation related to the pandemic took a communal colour in India and minority communities were being targeted for the spread of the virus.

4. 2020 has been a challenging year for fact-checkers. What was the most challenging fact-check for you and which one was the most effective?

We did a story on the most talked about and bizarre fact checks of 2020. Fake, lies & photoshop: Curious cures, horny sheep and other stories you tripped upon. If we have to pick up just one, we would choose the story about the mistaken identity of the Hathras rape victim. This was an incident that took place in September 2020 when a 19-year-old Dalit woman was gang-raped in Hathras district, Uttar Pradesh, India, allegedly by four upper caste men. After fighting for her life for two weeks, the girl died in a Delhi hospital. The story we worked on was challenging as well as impactful because even senior ministers were paying tribute to the wrong girl while the entire country was engrossed in the tragic case.

5. In what ways has Check supported your fact-checking work? In 2021, what else would you like Check to do for you?

Checking misinformation in closed messaging groups is the biggest challenge the world over and India is no exception. In India, almost everyone uses WhatsApp. Check is our window into the world of closed groups of WhatsApp without invading people’s privacy. It not only helps us in tracking misinformation but also gives us an opportunity to build a direct rapport and trust with our readers and viewers. Automation within the tool makes it possible to deal with volume which is difficult if we fact-check messages on WhatsApp manually. The best part is that Check is getting better by the day and has evolved by taking into account our feedback. The bot resources have also helped us to get quality content for fact-checks while filtering out the spam. In 2021, we would like the tool to bring in some more features to make it faster and more powerful.

6. What are your plans for expansion to other languages and areas outside urban centres?

We plan to scale up our fact check in Bangla language in the light of elections in West Bengal and also expand into some regional languages in southern India.

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