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 > Radha Radhakrishnan in conversation with Jency Jacob on the importance of fact checking in combating fake news.

Radha Radhakrishnan in conversation with Jency Jacob on the importance of fact checking in combating fake news.

Mrigashira
Radha Radhakrishnan in conversation with Jency Jacob on the importance of fact checking in combating fake news.
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Host

Hi, Jency. Welcome to Mrigashira, it’s great to have you on this podcast.

Jency

Hi Radha Thank you for inviting me. And I’m happy to be here to talk to you. And also speak to you speak to your listeners as well.

Host

So, you must also read this recent study by MIT, which says that debunking the claim, after one has read the news is more effective than, you know, sort of pre bunking the news or, or sort of putting it right at the beginning saying that, you know, this is fake. But what has been your experience, you know, running boom?

Jency Jacob

Well, Radha, I think this study is quite interesting.

Because if I remember, well, it was MIT’s own study a few years back, when they found that the speed at which false news spreads is several times higher than the, you know, the debunk news or the fact-finding of that particular news is concerned. So, for example, if suppose if we fact check something, and I’m assuming that they know the claim went viral on Twitter, or on Facebook before that, once we debunk that claim, that same the story which debunks the claim does not find the same virality as much as the misinformed post, probably went viral before that. Now that study, I definitely understood because that was our own experience as well, that after we took all the pain, and took all the, put all our skills into order to go and find out what that particular claim was, and why it is not true. Sometimes it took actually several days for us to buzz something but after we’ve published the fact check, we don’t really find the same virality to as much as probably the claim before that would have found virality. So, this piece of study that they are pointing out now seems to be suggesting that and you know, if you show them the fact check later, probably there is a better chance of them, revising their views than probably showing them the label along with the viral claim. Now, that is what I understand from the study, it is going to be very interesting because how platforms are going to going to make sense of this and do their own study and see if MIT’s own study agrees with their own practical experiences would be interesting to watch out for. Because this would mean that probably the way platforms are showing the labels or the fact check labels along with the viral claims maybe that is not as effective as one thought it to be, though, I would actually want to study this a bit more and probably check with our readers as well, whether it works or not to be sure you know that this is exactly how people think of because I’ve, to be honest, my only disconnect with the study is that once someone has read a false information, and they move on to another claim, they’re not really bothering to go back to check what they read earlier was true or not. So, which is why probably platforms put the label immediately.

The challenge for them is to immediately stop the virality of it. So, if suppose on Facebook, for instance, if someone has seen some claim or probably for a video, which probably has an, has chances of creating a viral communal situation and influencing people towards violence or towards taking some action which is not good for the society. The challenge for the platform is to be able to immediately A bring it down if it is violating the community norms or suppose if it is not violating the community norms, but still misinforming people, at least giving the people the opportunity to read a fact check before they decide to share it. This is my platform that gives labels. Now, if the study shows that it is not useful to show the label immediately or maybe it should be shown much later. I’m not sure how that changes the operational aspect of busting misinformation as far as platforms are concerned. But as far as fact-checkers like us are concerned, it does not really alter the way we work because for us, whenever we received a claim, we will go ahead to fact-check them.

Host

Correct, correct

I don’t even know how many people actually go beyond the headline or the paragraph when it comes to a text-oriented kind of a story before they are actually forwarding it. Right. So, to that extent, I feel that this is a bit counterproductive.

Jency

Yes, I agree with you.

And partly because that has been our experience. Most times, when we share our stories on Twitter, we found that the engagement with the Twitter post has nothing to do with the traffic on the story. So, for example, there may be some 500 people who are retweeting your story. But they really retweeted your story, because they have read the headline, they have read the Twitter text that we have put out, which is why we always sensitize our home, or our social media team, why it is so important to pick the right tweet text from the story. And we found that most people don’t really bother to click on the story, which is why some time back Twitter used to add one more layer where they were asking people, whether they would like to read the story before the share or they do any form of engagement on it. I don’t think so Twitter does it any longer, maybe because Twitter found that people really found it irritating. And for people to be on the platform, it was enough for them to see the headline, and probably the text going along with it. This all goes back Radha to, to the political ecosystems that we are in or the echo chambers that we all, you know, the bubble that we live in, mostly by reading the headline, or the text that goes along with the story on the platform, whether it is Twitter or Facebook, it is more than enough, usually for people to figure that it is that you know that the said news is true or false. And only if it confirms, confirms to your political ideology, or your political viewpoint, will you go ahead to engage with it. For example, if suppose if you belong to A political ideology, and you find some news, which has been debunked, which is against your political ideology, very rarely will you find people going and sharing it. And this is rather sad because it means that we don’t give really, as readers give importance to truth or the facts. But we more want to actually give importance to the truth or the facts that we believe are true. Now that, that is exactly the problem that we live in. And that’s exactly the society we have created which is one reason why probably fact-checkers fight a battle which is so lopsided against them and it is usually the bad actors who probably are more happy with the way work that they’re doing, than probably the fact-checkers themselves being satisfied by the fact you know that they are making a difference to the society.

Host

Most of the fact-checking and false or fake news is pretty much around politics, right? And probably in some cases celebrities. So, is that something that you have seen universally, like outside of India or is it something that is unique to India?

Jency

Or that’s not unique to India, it’s probably, see, people are the same everywhere Radha, whether they live in the US or they live in Europe or they live in Africa or they live in Asia, people are the same in some form or the other there are only cultural differences to misinformation, for example, the alt-right in the US, which probably belong to a very different religious identity and ideology are probably the same from the alt-right that we see in India, who probably belong to another religion or an ideology, right? There is no difference.

For example, you know, in India, for example, today, we did a story where there was a video that was going viral of a brawl that took place, and people said that it is Ajay Devgan getting beaten by the farmer supporters because Ajay Devgan in the past has put out some tweet in the favor of the farm laws. Now this video has been going viral since morning, we were looking at the video and oh, you know, while one particular character in that brawl, did look like Ajay Devgan it was a very grainy video, it was very clear and evident to us that it is not true. Now from anecdotal evidence of probably how Ajay Devgan might behave in public or the fact that you know how that video was panning out, we could make out that you know, it is not Ajay Devgan. But you should see the amount of virality that it has generated on Facebook and on and on WhatsApp, people are discussing about it, people are talking about it. All it took was for someone to pick up an unrelated brawl video and add Ajay Devgan’s name to it. Yeah, and that has ensured that a brawl which would have otherwise also been visible, and people would have seen it and would have ignored it got more viral and got more shared, I might have sent it to some, few of my team members, and would have asked them Is it true? and that’s because I’m a fact-checker. But suppose if I’m not a fact-checker, I would still send it to some people and ask them that, does the person looks like Ajay Devgan or not? Now that contributes to the engagement that that post is generating. And you should see the kind of comments that are going on that, people are making all kinds of comments about Bollywood stars, about nepotism, it has generated a whole range of conversations around it, why only because it is Ajay Devgan. otherwise, people would have said, Oh, some rich people fighting with each other. And we fact-checked that story and we put it out and people are reading that story. So, this is a challenge everywhere, no matter which part of the world you belong to politics is going to be at the center stage. Because political ideology actually influences a lot of things in your life. And it is crucial for many of the rights that you perceive that you will require, or probably the sense of victimhood that you think you have, because of certain reasons and the way the politicians themselves cultivate political vote banks. So, politics will continue to dominate politics and religion, in my view, politics, and religion, both of these will continue to dominate a lot of conversation around misinformation.

Host

There are a lot of, you know, platforms like FB, Twitter, they’re all taking several measures, but it seems to be not just enough so what is lacking?

Jency Jacob

I wouldn’t say that their heart is not in the right place. I interact with all these platforms I interact with, probably, I mean, I don’t interact with the CEO of these, CEOs of these platforms. But I interact with people down the line, who probably influence policy in some form or the other. And my observation has always been that their heart is in the right place. It is not as if it is not. But I always find that there is tension between people who build policy or who want to influence policy, and people who influence the business side or the bottom, bottom line of the platforms. For example, any start-up that you see, their valuation is dependent on the engagement. And, unfortunately, a lot of political conversations that happen on platforms and the way conversations are built over about who you should vote for who is a good political leader or these kinds of conversations which actually influenced the way you go and vote, a lot of them actually have a lot of myth in it. So, you know, just closer to the election, you will find that, for example, if you take platforms out. in the pre-platform era, probably pre-2008, 2007. When we did not have social media platforms, how are we discussing political parties and politicians, we either found news, articles that were written about it, or we were conversing with them probably, when we meet friends when we are out there traveling in the train, in the bus, probably at an adda, you know, or otherwise at Chai ki Tapri, or wherever, wherever there is a social setting, we were discussing, and mythmaking was part of that as well, right? A lot of the times, we always thought that we had something extra to give where we were adding Tadka and masala and talking something about a political leader or a political party and their decisions without actually knowing whether that is true or not. Now imagine what, what the entry of platforms has done, what we were talking one to one has now got the chance of being amplified multiple times. So you could actually be a completely or completely a nobody. But you may have generated some form of influencer status on some platform, and you have started writing about it, you’ve completely, the political parties have cut through the media missionary that they earlier used to be dependent on, and the reaching the people directly. And this is engagement. And this engagement is good for the bottom line of the platforms. So, platforms while they have understood that this misinformation is creating a lot of havoc in the real world, it can actually result in genocides, it can actually result in violence, it can actually result in entirely good political parties being thrown away and bad actors being coming to power and the resultant policy measures that are taken, which is not good for a country or society. These are things that have been the knowledge that we have only gathered in the last 10 years. So, Radha often we forget, it’s only a decade been where we have figured out that how much this badly influences our day to day lives as far as misinformation platforms are concerned. So, while their heart is in the right place, there is this constant tension between those who create, who are trying to create policy, and those who are trying to protect the bottom line of the platforms. And I think that is a tension that platforms are always battling, or they do something, they try to bring in a measure that they see their engagement dropping, then they are forced to post pull back a bit. This is going to be constant attention. And I don’t think you can blame the platforms alone. It is actually we also as people who have evolved into the kind of monsters that we are that even once we are shown, and I have known that, very well-meaning people after I’ve told them that what you believed and you shared is not true. Can you pull it down? they refuse to do it. So, why blame platforms only it is also the way we as individuals have evolved into.

Host

So, this is a friction that is likely to stay for some more time.

Jency Jacob

Well, this friction is not going to go away, this friction will continue to be there, which is why we may have to invest a lot into media literacy. We need to actually invest in media literacy right at school and college level where our kids when they go to school, or when they go to college, they are equipped to understand that when they see something on their feeds, how should they respond to it? What are the key metrics that they need to keep in mind when they believe whether it is true or whether they should be sharing it or not sharing it?

Host

And there is a lot of fact-checking philanthropy that Google, Facebook, and some other non-profit foundations have, you know, sort of started, right? Should media literacy also be part of these initiatives should they be, you know, trying to do something around this to bring back trust and credibility, not just to the media organizations, but also overall, as a society?

Jency Jacob

Well, they should, and I think they are doing it as well. There are several grants that many of these platforms actually give out every year, so that they can encourage start-ups to think more about media literacy, about training, about how to bring out innovative methods of, of storytelling, so that people, people would want to read more credible, credible information, rather than believing in very similar-looking or credible-looking misinformation, without actually taking a step back and trying to verify whether it is true or not. So, these are challenges that, that even platforms are trying to address in some way or the other. But as I said earlier, that tension of being true either to your social, social responsibility or to your bottom line, is always going to make the efforts by the platform’s very doubtful and very difficult for us to trust all the time, which is why I think there needs to be a lot of good investment in good journalism. And this has been my pet peeve. As far as philanthropists in India are concerned, we just don’t have the kind of ecosystems where people are coming forward and investing in good journalists, and good journalism.

For example, how many of us really pay for content, you know, we are always trying to sub circumvent or go around the paywalls of news websites, by asking for either PDFs, or asking someone who has a paper as a subscription to send us a PDF version of the story, rather than actually going and paying for that content. Right. It could also be that the publications themselves are not thought of innovative ways of doing paywalls and memberships, which I think is changing now, a lot of websites are doing it, and there are a couple of websites who were paid to read from day one. So, all of this see, unless you pay for something, and you’re paying for it through your hard-earned money, you will not value it. So, any information which is free, you will see it and then, you will look at it you know in the same masala entertainment manner that you see any Tik Tock video or any real video that someone is pushing out, and then you will pass it on right. But news actually cannot be shared or cannot be, you know, participated in like probably you participate in some masala entertainment, that you see, I think there has to be that distinction. And that can only come if there are if there are people with money, with deep pockets who start philanthropic ventures where they say that, you know we are ready to invest in good journalism. And they come forward to do it. Despite the kind of political climate that exists in which seeks to punish those who invest in entities which probably are not, are not always in tune with how the government wants them to be. And this ecosystem Radha, you will find in the US. In the US there are a lot of these deep-pocketed industrialists and deep-pocketed people who probably feel that it is their responsibility towards society to ensure that good journalism survives. And I, I really fail to find that except for a couple of people who I know have created foundations. But otherwise, it’s quite a challenge. And unless you bring in that investment and you bring in money to fund these ventures, it’s going to be very difficult to continue many of these initiatives because you will always be dependent on non-profit foundations to give you grants, and there is a limit to how you can survive in that kind of an environment.

Host

Yeah, but you can’t, in a way blame these foundations also Jency because we have, as a country we have so many other issues and priorities that needs to get addressed. I guess most of these foundations are focused on that and good journalism probably ranks way lower in that order.

Jency Jacob

I agree also, which is why I’m saying that you should, you need not divert money from the real pressing issues of water and sanitation and education. I think we all have to go together. It is I always say this, there is no reason why media outlets in India should be starving for capital. And the reason why we are starving for capital is because there are not enough good people coming forward to fund these ventures, why should we be looking to foreign shows for capital, it’s not as if media, digital media does not require a lot of money. If someone decides, if a good set of journalists decide to come together and form a venture, it is actually going to take very little money to set up a venture and do quality journalism. But even that, that kind of capital we are starving for, and that is why probably good journalists do not want to leave their probably their jobs that give them some security or even those who attempt to do it either get hammered by the establishment, because their good journalism may not be conducive for the political climate or for the administration of the government of the day. So, it is always that challenge. And with this is exactly the trouble we have we are finding ourselves in and I think till that happens that there is a robust capital, which is coming in, you will always find that there will be fly by night operators, who will come in who will just put up a blog to shout some rubbish, give some news, which is trickling to people’s ears and give some news which people are convenient to understand and read and share without bothering whether it is factual or not. This is always going to be the trouble till good capital chases good journalism.

Host

These days, media entities themselves have started putting out at least around the stories that they have reported, or they have put out whether it is fake, or whether it is, you know, misinformation of some nature, right? In a way, that is also probably one step towards practicing good journalism. But what I want to know is, how is boom life going to be relevant and unique as more and more people, you know, coming to this system of doing self, you know, fact-checking and, and putting out there, what is fake and what is real.

Jency Jacob

Well Radha, when we started about four years back, I know that, you know, a lot of us who were a Doom came from traditional media publications. And when we came together, and we were looking at what is it that we what is the problem that we need to solve. And we found that a lot of the information that is floating around on social media, were not getting any attention from anyone, but it was actually creating a lot of virality. And it was completely going unchecked. The mainstream media publications from where I worked earlier, and many of my colleagues worked earlier, did not have any interest, nor were they bothered about addressing them. And the reason why probably mainstream media lost credibility is because we completely fail to see that there was an entire set of population who were getting the news on social media. And they were able to see through some of the false narratives that even mainstream media were pushing out because of whatever narrow goals that they had. Yeah, today, I can say after four years after we started fact-checking and we created an entire, the principles we had how a story has to be written, how we have to go back to the first source, anonymous source-based reporting you will not find in boom, unless it is in a very rare instance. These we know there are some of these very good journalism principles that we follow. Now, it is not to say that you know that if boom doesn’t do it, no one else is going to do it. Of course, there are many others who are doing it. There are many people who are digital first who are doing it. And there are many mainstream publications who have understood what boom does and why fact-checking is so important and they are also doing it so I don’t think it is an either-or situation. As far as Boomer is concerned, we are not bothered about many of the other stuff that people write. Like we are not chasing entertainment, we are not chasing page, page views. So, what helps us is that every story when we pick up, we are only asking one question, do we have the primary source? And can we fact check that beyond any doubt or any scope of people raising, a reader raising a question saying that you know, but what about this, you did not check this properly, if we are true to that principle, I think there will always be takers for our news, and we are happy to aid to that ecosystem. In over the last four years, we have called out many mainstream media outlets. This was unthinkable earlier, we have written stories, called them out said their news is false, forced them to correct, force them to go back and issue corrections or delete stories. This is all happened because people like us have taken up that fight and have looked inwards if you wouldn’t have looked in words. And if you would have only been fact-checking politicians and people in power, then the mainstream media would have got away. Today any mainstream media newsroom is also aware of the fact that some viral video or image that they’re picking up to write about, there could be a chance that there is misinformation around it. And that that change that we have brought in their newsrooms, is thanks for the work that fact-checker like us have done.

Host

Great. It’s great. Talking to you Jency

Jency Jacob

Thanks, Radha, for inviting me and it was a pleasure talking to you as well.