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.”
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.
“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.