How info-warriors in rural India are busting fake news

(This story originally appeared in on Nov 20, 2020)

Always glued to his smartphone at a Covid care centre in Shopian town of south Kashmir, Adnan Tak drew the curiosity of other patients. “I told them that I was letting people in the district know about the facilities at the government-run centre and countering rumours on social media about a spike in the number of Covid cases,” says Tak, who was himself down with the novel coronavirus disease then.

His photos and posts of patients playing basketball and availability of running water at the Covid centre were an evidence-based response to those spreading misinformation on the alleged lack of amenities there. Every day, during the entire period of the lockdown, the 26-year-old kept putting out accurate data of cases, recoveries and deaths – which he sourced from the local administration – to counter fake reports of spiralling Covid numbers and casualties being loosely shared on various social media platforms.

Tak belongs to a countrywide network of info-warriors battling the infodemic of fake news, especially in rural India, offering fact-checked hyper-local information. Around 300 in number and working across 739 districts, they disseminate correct timings of local markets and buses and trains, inform the public about accessibility of roads sometimes closed due to landslides, and share news validated by government officials related to the pandemic. These volunteering crusaders of facts are part of project MyPincode and serve an online community of over 3.5 lakh members on Facebook.

It all started when two NCR-based NGOs, Sarvahitey and Social Media Matters (SMM), invited people with a smartphone and internet connection to volunteer for the project during the nationwide lockdown in April. Sarvahitey with its countrywide contacts established the network, while SMM trained the youngsters on how to fact-check and validate information, and flag fake news. And Youth Online Learning Opportunity (Yolo) was born.

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“Sarvahitey has been building libraries all across the country and SMM has expertise in conducting workshops on digital safety and combating fake news,” says Amitabh Kumar, founder of SMM. Kumar advises Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Netflix and Uber on how to make their platforms safer for women and children in India.

“Yolo members flag suspicious posts on Facebook and help take them down. We busted fake news on medications, vaccination rumours, and lockdown myths,” says Kumar. In the world of software development, there is a saying that “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow”. It is called Linus’s Law and it stipulates that with enough people looking at a software code, all bugs will be caught. Yolo brings the same approach to deal with fake news. “We received tremendous support from government officials.,” says Sarvahitey founder Prem Prakash.

The kind of information shared, however, varies from state to state. Hengam Riba, a 19-year-old from Basar town of Arunachal Pradesh, informs locals about landslide road closures in her region. In Andhra Pradesh’s East Godavari district, Surya Teja’s posts on shops delivering grocery and medicines helped thousands of families.

The sheer volume of online information makes it impossible for the few “fact-checking” organisations to flag all viral fake news reports. The Yolo network shows that it is possible to expand fact-checking by bringing in grassroots volunteers and dealing with fake information hyper-locally, long before it reaches millions of people.



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