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Home Editor's picks BBC's amended research on Fake News: Glaring flaws, negligence and a carefully hidden confession

BBC’s amended research on Fake News: Glaring flaws, negligence and a carefully hidden confession

The researchers weren't aware of the factors that affected the spreading of Fake News. They designed their study in such a way that only sociopolitical factors are considered in the study. Then, based on their biased fact checkers and motivated social media analysis, BBC declared Nationalism to be a driving force behind Fake News without even taking into consideration non-sociopolitical factors.

After pulling down the research on Fake News from its website, then putting it back up, then removing it and putting it back up again, the BBC appears to believe it has sufficiently answered its critics. However, there were some fundamental problems with the research which have not been addressed and, frankly, cannot be addressed because the foundations of the entire research were faulty.

In the amended report, the researchers have addressed some issues, ignored others completely and have generally skirted major flaws while addressing only minor ones.

BBC admits its mistake

The BBC admits in its amended report that they cannot really say whether nationalism is the driving force behind Fake News or not. They really do say that and yet the organization has issued no apology for its previous grandiose comments.

It must be kept in mind that this was added when the new research report was published after 30 hours of it being pulled down temporarily. This paragraph was not there in their original research paper. The research paper states:

“This study –being qualitative- cannot tell us the relative importance of each of these factors and how they will vary across different population groups. What it does tell us is that all of these factors will play some role. So it could well be the case that for young people the motivation of civic duty plays much more strongly than their socio-political identities- but we think it likely that both of these factors will apply.”

The researchers clearly state that they cannot compare the relative influence of the factors associated with Fake News.

That was the primary bone of contention. No one disagreed that nationalism was a factor behind the spread of fake news, the disagreement was about calling it ‘a driving force’ behind fake news in India. The researchers themselves admit they cannot state from the research the effect of nationalism on fake news relative to other factors. Then why did BBC publish a report with the headline, “Nationalism a driving force behind fake news in India, research shows”? ‘Driving force’ implies a comparison between different factors. Is it not Fake News then?

The dishonesty of BBC is evident from the fact that despite adding this admission, they have not amended their news article which sweepingly asserted that “Nationalism is the driving force behind fake news”.

They have not clarified their stand on this, perhaps hoping that this paragraph that was added would be missed by most.

When BBC has so much as admitted that they cannot make such generalisations in this report, why it is furthered this agenda is beyond the realm of understanding.

The Use of Qualitative Research

As I have said earlier in a previous article, one of the ontological positions of Qualitative Research is that there are multiple realities. Therefore, the purpose of the research is not to discover objective truth but gain more information and understanding about a particular phenomenon. If understanding the factors affecting Fake News was the objective, then why have the researchers completely ignore non-sociopolitical factors that could affect the spreading of Fake News? They have focused entirely on sociopolitical alone and their social media analysis is based entirely on politics alone and in that too, they have been one-sided in focusing on BJP. It doesn’t appear sincere at all.

The researchers are correct when they say that the sample size for Qualitative Research is small. However, that does not explain how they generalized the findings of a Qualitative Research to a global phenomenon. Because that is not the purpose of Qualitative Research at all.

And the findings of Qualitative Research cannot be generalized to any significant extent. As we have noted above, the researchers have dented quite a significant blow to those who have reached fantastical conclusions based on their research.

Biased Fact Checkers and discrepancies

The BBC used four sources to determine entities that have spread Fake News. 3 out of 4 of these are heavily biased. IndiaSpend’s factchecker runs a dubious hate crime database that is designed to further the narrative of Hindus as aggressors and Muslims as victims. We have elaborated on them greatly in our previous articles.

BoomLive is an organization that shares the same founder as IndiaSpend. They have justified using these two institutions by stating that they are verified by an international network of fact checkers.

An interesting aspect of the entire affair is that the founding trustee of Indiaspend, whose ‘fact checker’ BBC has relied on, is now the Data Analytics head of Congress party. One that opposes people who vote for BJP and Narendra Modi by terming them as “Nationalists”. The conflict of interests is apparent, but it somehow missed BBC?

But under what criteria did they use AltNews as a fact-checker for their research? The co-founder of AltNews is notorious himself for spreading Fake News, how does the BBC justify using such an outlet as a fact checker?

There is also a page in the amended report where the BBC appears to have just lied outright.

Page no. 110 of the amended report states:

“The study lists some Twitter handles as ‘sources known to have published fake news’, based on reports by one of the following three fact-checking initiatives: boomlive.in, factchecker.in, or altnews.in. This is not based on judgments from the researchers or the BBC.”

Curiously, they have omitted the name of another fact checker they claim to have used: smhoaxslayer. Was this because smhoaxslayer failed to toe the agenda line?

Even page no. 105 which lists the amendments made, says, “The three fact-checking initiatives that have been used to arrive at sources ‘known to have published fake news’ are now signposted in multiple places in the report.”

On page number 82, of both the original and amended report, they list smhoaxslayer as a fact checker they have relied on. Why did they omit the outlet’s name in page number 110?

On page no. 82, they mention smhoaxslayer as one of the fact checkers they have used along with the other three and on page no. 110, they say they have only used three sources, omitting its name. Why such discrepancy? And under what criteria was smxhoaxslayer included as a fact checker in their research in the first place?

Shoddy defence of its Research findings

On page no. 108 of the amended report, the BBC has mounted a remarkably poor defence of its research. The researchers simply ask us to trust them.

They say:

“We are confident that whatever the tools future researchers use to study this phenomenon, the basic picture we have painted will remain recognisable. What we can’t say from this project is the degree to which the various factors outlined will apply.”

They are “confident”, they say. But that’s not sufficient for academic inquiry. Even conspiracy theorists are absolutely convinced of the certainty of their conclusions, should we just trust their conclusions because they are “confident”?

Moreover, how could anyone trust their ‘confidence’ given the existential crisis social sciences are suffering from? A research project that attempted to replicate the results of 21 social science experiments published between 2010 and 2015 in top journals could only replicate 13. And even among the 13, the observed effect was only about 75% of that observed the first time around.

On one occasion, an experiment using solid social science methodology claimed to find that humans are capable of perceiving the future. Renowned scholars have been exposed as complete frauds. Findings in social sciences which were thought to form its bedrock were found to be unreliable. Have they seriously not heard of the replication crisis in social sciences? The events of recent years have proved that social sciences cannot be trusted too much, at least until they fix the malaise they are suffering from. Therefore, we simply cannot trust the BBC researchers when they say their findings will be validated by future research.

Researchers’ Negligence

We had pointed out in our earlier article that the researchers have used the terms ‘ethnographic’ and ‘semi-ethnographic’ liberally and the confusion is still not clear. In their Methodology section, they use the term semi-ethnographic to describe their interviews while in the Data and Methodology Appendix, they dub it ethnographic. A clarification in this regard has still not been issued.

Apart from that, on page no. 105 of the amended report, it says, “A footnote, on page 101 has been edited. The earlier version read “Because the analysis starts with fake news sources as seeds, the conclusions drawn here are limited”. The new version reads “Note. Because the analysis here is about fake news, not politics, conclusions are limited”.”

However, we could not find any such footnote on page no. 101. This reflects an extremely casual attitude on the part of researchers. Even on the page of the amended report that would attract the most attention, they have committed such errors.

Researcher Bias

The researchers have still not clarified on the steps that were taken to rectify researcher bias. And they showed researcher bias evidently when they selected AltNews and smhoaxslayer as their fact checkers without any credible criterion.

We mentioned that political affiliation of the researchers could affect the results significantly, the amended report does not clarify whether there was sufficient diversity in political opinion among the researchers and if there wasn’t, whether any corrective measures were taken at all to rectify the bias which could permeate the results.

False Premises

All the fact checkers used by the researchers are inherently political in nature. Thus, it’s not surprising that they came with highly politically coloured results. For instance, we are all aware that the death of Rowan Atkinson (the actor who famously portrayed Mr Bean) has been a recurring Fake News that is spread every couple of years. And lots of people fall prey to it.

Not just Mr Bean, Fake News regarding deaths of celebrities is an extremely common phenomenon. However, it is surprising that it does not a garner any attention in the research on Fake News.

The very fact that sociopolitical factors are granted inherent primacy among all factors related to Fake News reflects a strong bias.

We are not even sure, and the researchers aren’t either, whether sociopolitical factors are the driving forces behind Fake News. Therefore, why have Fake News surrounding others areas of news been ignored?

Seed Nodes

In their Facebook Network Map, the seed nodes constituted of only political entities and apart from them, “Q’uran, Hindutva, Hindu Nationalism, Brahman, Hindu Kriya”. Thus, seed nodes associated with the Hindu Right outnumber that of those with secular credentials by 4-1. Could it not have affected the over-representation of the Hindu Rights in its networking analysis of Fake News?

Moreover, as we have mentioned, these are all political seed nodes. First of all, researchers weren’t aware whether sociopolitical factors affect the spreading of Fake News more than non-sociopolitical factors. Then, they used only political seed nodes, apart from media outlets, for their analysis based on social media.

Then, as they have admitted in their amended report, their research does not tell whether one sociopolitical factor affects spreading of fake news more than others. And despite all these flaws, the BBC went on to proclaim Nationalism a driving force behind fake news. Forget non-sociopolitical factors, even among sociopolitical factors, the research doesn’t say anything conclusive about the effect of Nationalism.

Conclusion

The research was doomed to fail from the very beginning. We mentioned in our earlier article on how the very operational definition of Fake News in the research was problematic. The amended report has only issued clarifications on the questions on its sampling technique that we had raised. They further admit that it was a limitation of their research that rural India had no representation, another flaw that we had pointed out. However, the educational background, which affects the behaviour of people in social settings massively, was not taken into account, neither was their history of mental health. This was a huge flaw on which the researchers have issued no clarification in the addition section on the methodology that they have added in their amended report.

The gist of the matter is:

The researchers weren’t aware of the factors that affected the spreading of Fake News. They designed their study in such a way that only sociopolitical factors are considered in the study. Then, based on their biased fact checkers and motivated social media analysis, BBC declared Nationalism to be a driving force behind Fake News without even taking into consideration non-sociopolitical factors.

Thus, in conclusion, the BBC’s amended report does not serve their purpose at all. They have admitted that they cannot say whether Nationalism is a driving force based on their research but have offered no strong words against those, including the BBC itself, who stated otherwise. They have corrected only minor mistakes while ignoring the great flaws in their research.

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K Bhattacharjee
Black Coffee Enthusiast. Post Graduate in Psychology. Bengali.

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