Boom! How this small team of journalists is doing a bust on fake news

Shrabonti Bagchi July 28, 2017

Boom FactCheck calls itself the ‘Fake News Police’, and that’s not at all a bad description for this niche news website that’s just a few months old. Along with AltNews.in and @SMHoaxSlayer, Boom forms a trio of digital truth-tellers who have taken it upon themselves to resist deluge of fake news and unsubstantiated reports flooding our inboxes via Twitter, WhatsApp, and occasionally even mainstream media, with ruthless fact-checking and data.

Let’s see how. Take this story currently on Boom’s homepage. It shows a smiling middle-aged brown man touching a child’s face with bloody hands and smearing blood on it. The child’s face has been blurred, but the image would still classify as explicit and grotesque by any objective measure. It was (and perhaps still is) being shared on social media in India as a Facebook post by an Indian man celebrating Bakrid (which involves ritual animal sacrifice), ostensibly jubilant about ‘playing holi with blood of hindus cow mata’ (sic).

Along with AltNews.in and @SMHoaxSlayer, Boom forms a trio of digital truth-tellers who have taken it upon themselves to resist deluge of fake news and unsubstantiated reports flooding our inboxes via Twitter, WhatsApp, and occasionally even mainstream media, with ruthless fact-checking and data  

Provocative stuff, wouldn’t you agree? Maybe even disturbing enough to cause a riot or two in the current communally polarised climate? The truth is, this particular photo isn’t even from India. “This image was sent to me by an alert BOOM reader, who feared that it was fake,” explains Jency Jacob, managing editor, Boom FactCheck. Most of the fake stories they debunk are either forwarded to them by alert readers via a tip-off link on the website, picked up on social media, or shared on a WhatsApp helpline where readers can share potentially fake messages.

To debunk this particular viral message, Jacob first did a Google reverse image search and found that it was visible on various foreign websites, especially from the Middle East. Further probing narrowed it down to Egypt. “Then we used Google translate and found that several stories were filed back in 2016 about this Egyptian educationist who had taken this picture. He was heavily criticised for using a child in the act and he pulled down the picture,” says Jacob, explaining that the image, a selfie taken by this Egyptian man with his daughter on the occasion of Bakrid, was picked up by someone in India and made into an inflammatory Facebook post by adding fake Photoshopped comments to it. “It was a clear case of real image but misused with misleading text to create communal tension. The story was widely shared on social media,” says Jacob.

Boom’s modus operandi

It also takes some amount of courage to lock horns with powerful, established media houses. The team at Boom did that recently when it called out Times Now, arguably the biggest English news channel in India, for using an old and previously debunked WhatsApp forward to substantiate a story on Islamic conversions in Kerala “managed by ISIS”. The object used was a “rate-card” giving rates of rewards to Muslim men for marrying Hindu women of specific castes. This rate-card, in circulation since 2012, has been exposed as a mischievous attempt to create communal tension by multiple publications, including Hindustan Times and ABP News, and it did seem as if the “ISIS” connection was pure invention as the iconography on the card pointed to a connection with Hezbollah, a Shia organisation with a history of hostility towards ISIS.

Unlike its peers, Boom doesn’t just debunk political propaganda or racist and communal forwards; it also verifies relatively harmless but false rumours and urban legends circulating online and spreading misinformation. The most recent example of this is the widely circulated claim that the government was levying Goods and Service Tax (GST) twice on utility bills paid via credit card. “Such was the impact of this fake news that India’s finance secretary had to issue a statement countering this, along with other GST myth busting pointers. BOOM carried this almost in real time,” says Jacob. It has also debunked fairness cream scams, and rumour-mongering videos about a public sector bank collapse.

The global fight against fake news

To be sure, investigative teams at Boom FactCheck or Alt News can just about scratch the surface of the fake news trash-heap. Globally, a consensus is emerging among editors and publishers that technology will have to be harnessed to form a substantial force against fake news and its proliferation. In a paper published in April 2017, Facebook said that it is using new analytical techniques like machine learning to increase “protections against manually created fake accounts” and to uncover and disrupt fake news. Around the same time, a group of academics, tech industry insiders, and journalists launched a project called the Fake News Challenge to try and create fake news-detecting algorithms during hackathons and public challenges.

Screenshot of a story from Boomlive.in

Recently, UK organisation FullFact received $500,000 in funding by Omidyar Network and Open Society Foundations for two new fact-checking tools to help “develop a global infrastructure for automated fact-checking.”

From fact-checking politicians to fighting fake news

In that sense, Boom is more Snopes.com than its peer AltNews (which was profiled by Firstpost and the BBC recently) which focuses almost solely on false right-wing propaganda, and was launched before it.

An independent, digital media organisation that focuses almost exclusively on fact-checking and exposing fake news: why did that seem like a good idea for a media startup? Boom was launched in March 2017 by business journalist Govindraj Ethiraj, who is also the founder of IndiaSpend, a data journalism website that is part of the same digital media network, Ping Digital Broadcast. “Actually, digital and niches go together. We didn’t want to be a horizontal news organisation like a HuffPost or a FirstPost. Also, this is a mission for us,” says Ethiraj.

“Actually, digital and niches go together. We didn’t want to be a horizontal news organisation like a HuffPost or a FirstPost. Also, this is a mission for us” — Govindraj Ethiraj, founder of Boom  

It started with fact-checking politicians and those in public life making claims that were often based on false data or concepts. “That is how we first started doing fact checks — by looking at the claims and comparing with the data available in the public domain. In over 90% of the cases, we have found that the claims are far from the truth,” says Jacob.

Snopes.com (which incidentally is fighting its own funding crisis right now) was definitely an inspiration behind fact-checking claims made by politicians that willy-nilly found their way to mainstream media. But the rapid adoption of WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter, and the subsequent spread of dangerous fake news made it necessary for Boom to adopt a somewhat more urgent tactic — that of countering false propaganda and insidious forwards that have the potential to spark real-life unrests.

What’s mainstream media’s role in all this?

In fact, it would be correct to say that the tone and tenor of fake news itself has changed — not just in India but across the globe. From the annoying but relatively harmless “drink this juice to live till 90”, “don’t keep this plant in your house or you’ll die” kind of chain messages to more politically motivated ones, the inherent nature of fake messages has changed since the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections in India, and the US presidential elections.

Ethiraj agrees. “Yes, it has changed and what you see today is a combination of ‘drink this juice..’ (type of messages) and the dangerous, incendiary content that is spread on WhatsApp. Another key difference is WhatsApp, with over 230 million subscribers, is a platform that is bigger than the ‘media’ as we know or consume it. Content on WhatsApp is shared in groups, often very large ones and it acquires veracity because of velocity,” he says.

“Yes, it has changed and what you see today is a combination of ‘drink this juice..’ (type of messages) and the dangerous, incendiary content that is spread on WhatsApp” — Ethiraj  

He points out that the outcomes can be lethal, as we saw in the Jharkhand murders recently where seven individuals were killed on the basis of WhatsApp rumours. Recently, the four-member team at Boom schooled established media organisations like Forbes, NDTV and the Times of India when they misinterpreted an OECD report about citizens’ trust in government.

“The problem and the manner in which (fake news) has exploded is new. I was speaking with a German journalist two weeks ago and he said there is not much scope to fact-check German politicians because they are very precise and accurate — even boringly so! On the other hand, fake news is a growing problem in Europe — particularly incendiary content against refugees aimed at creating conflict,” says Ehtiraj. Earlier, he says, the sources of content were institutional, so a newspaper could check and verify as part of regular journalistic rigour. “But the sources of content in the fake news world are random and often operate under anonymity.”

“These guys (Boom, AltNews) are doing a great job, but there is just way too much (fake news) out there. And there is no easy solution — even global teams like First Draft and Full Fact, who are tackling it using technology, are basically developing tools to help human editors,” says Irshad Daftari, an ICFJ Google Fellow working with Indian newsrooms on tech innovation. “But the question I have to ask is, the job of fighting fake news doesn’t just belong to these independent organisations with their small teams. It’s not just their responsibility. Why isn’t, say, The Times of India, with its huge resources and big teams, tackling it?” asks Daftari.

 


Disclosure: FactorDaily is owned by SourceCode Media, which counts Accel Partners, Blume Ventures and Vijay Shekhar Sharma among its investors. Accel Partners is an early investor in Flipkart. Vijay Shekhar Sharma is the founder of Paytm. None of FactorDaily’s investors have any influence on its reporting about India’s technology and startup ecosystem.