On Wednesday, the Standing Committee for Information Technology, under the Chairmanship of Congress leader Shashi Tharoor, met to discuss the political bias that has been displayed by Facebook. Facebook India Managing Director Ajit Mohan appeared before the panel on the subject ‘Safeguarding citizens’ rights and prevention of misuse of social/online news media platforms, including special emphasis on women security in the digital space.
Only a few hours before the Committee met, Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad had written to Mark Zuckerberg, raising serious concerns about the political bias that Facebook has displayed against conservative voices in India.
One of the most important points raised by Ravi Shankar Prasad was that of Facebook outsourcing its responsibility to dubious fact-checkers who have clear political biases. Ravi Shankar Prasad had written:
A major issue with Facebook is the outsourcing of fact-checking to third party fact-checkers. How can Facebook absolve itself of its responsibility to protect users from misinformation and instead out-source this to shady organizations with no credibility? We have seen in India that right from the assessors for on-boarding fact-checkers to the fact-checkers themselves harbour publicly expressed political biases. Regularly vigilant volunteers on social media have to fact-check the fact-checkers! Even after onboarding so many fact-checkers, lot of misinformation related to COVID-19 and its aftermath went unchecked. How can an organisation like Facebook be oblivious to these realities?
Interestingly, according to a CNN-News18 report, in the committee hearing, “BJP MPs spoke about the International Fact-Checking Network Committee and appointments by Facebook. Its head Kanchan Kaur has been using “derogatory language” against the ruling dispensation, including attacking PM Narendra Modi”.
Kanchan Kaur in an associate of IFCN (International Fact-Checking Network) who decides which website gets the IFCN certification in India and which portal does not. The profile of Kanchan Kaur on IFCN website declares that she has no ‘conflict of interest’.
Some of the portals that Kanchan Kaur had assessed and cleared to get the IFCN certification are BoomLive, TheQuint, AltNews etc. This too appears on her IFCN profile. She had also assessed and cleared Factchecker.in to get an IFCN certification.
It is pertinent to note that not only have AltNews, Quint etc been caught spreading fake news several times and have an extremely clear political and ideological bias, but Factchecker.in was also involved in far sinister endeavours.
Factchecker.in was a part of IndiaSpend that was caught several times running their sinister agenda. IndiaSpend’s faulty FactChecker.in, which was known for having a track record of manipulating facts to suit their preconceived notions and agenda had decided to shut shop ‘Hate Crime Watch’ after being exposed several times for Hinduphobia and bias.
That Kanchan Kaur would assess and accord the IFCN certification to these portals that are clearly skewed against not only BJP as a political party but largely against Hindus and allied with Islamists would come as no surprise if one were to delve deeper into what Kanchan Kaur herself thinks.
OpIndia tried to look into the ideology of Kanchan Kaur herself and stumbled upon a paper that she had written in November 2019, a few months after the Modi government had been elected by the country for the second time. The paper that Kanchan Kaur wrote was “A review of the fake news ecosystem in India and the need for the News Literacy Project”. Interestingly, while she assumes to be the authority on fake news and which portal is ‘neutral’ and ‘reliable’ to be considered as ‘fact-checkers’, her paper itself was ridden with several lies and a clear ideological slant.
Abstract of the paper – Lies and more lies
In the abstract of the paper itself, Kanchan Kaur furthers several blatant lies and concocted tropes that don’t stand scrutiny.
In the first paragraph itself, Kanchan Kaur states that over 30 people had died due to child kidnapping rumours spread on social media, specifically through WhatsApp. That piece of information is not false in itself. Child lifting rumours have indeed been lethal and have led to several lives being lost to mob justice. However, the sinister agenda plays out after the first sentence.
She alludes to Jio and how India’s internet access has increased and then, connects it to BJP claiming that it has over 3 million people in their WhatsApp groups. Beyond that, she cites a BBC study to allege that it is the ‘right-wing’ that spreads ‘most of the disinformation’.
There are several things wrong with that first paragraph itself. Firstly, she attempts to connect the deaths due to child lifting rumours to somehow allege that BJP or the ‘right-wing’ is involved in spreading such rumours. There is simply no evidence to prove this since these lynchings have happened in different parts of the country, under different political parties and men and women who were Hindus and Muslims have fallen prey to it. Since making this assertion directly would amount to absolute fake news or even libel, Kanchan Kaur decides to randomly club disparate information together to make subtle insinuations and hints.
She then turns to cite the BBC report that allegedly claimed that right-wing in India spread the most amount of fake news. Since Kanchan Kaur, who claims to be an authority on ‘fake news’ and ‘fact-checkers’, it becomes essential to talk about just how shoddy BBC research was, how it was debunked and how BBC had backtracked this lie-ridden assertion about Nationalism being the driving force behind fake news.
BBC had recently published a ‘research’ paper on fake news which had created quite the brouhaha. The research was conducted based on shoddy methodology, based on questionable sources and had been comprehensively debunked by OpIndia.com.
After massive uproar against the report where they willy-nilly concluded that Nationalism drives fake news, the BBC responded to The Better India’s email that raised an objection against their name being included in the pro-BJP fake news purveyors list. The BBC then acknowledged that they had made an error in including their name. They had asserted that the website’s name had been removed from the ‘research’ and attributed it to ‘human error’.
Then, the BBC had pulled its research down with the website showing a 404 error. After publishing it again and pulling it down again, the BBC finally managed to upload the “research” again, however, it continued to have glaring loopholes. What was interesting was that they had included a paragraph that essentially retracted their earlier conclusion that “Nationalism was the driving factor behind fake news”.
The BBC had admitted 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 stated that they cannot compare the relative influence of the factors associated with Fake News.
In fact, after BBC’s shameless vilification of nationalists and subsequent retraction, OpIndia had listed 20 times that BBC had shamelessly peddled fake news.
After this entire expose and BBC backtracking their assertion, Kanchan Kaur, who IFCN has entrusted with the power to decide who is a reliable ‘fact-checker’ and who isn’t, uses this to vilify a people who hold a specific political ideology which can only be defined as being different than hers. Therefore, from the first paragraph itself, it can be safely concluded that Kanchan Kaur, the one who has been entrusted by IFCN, is not unbiased or has to ability to recognise fact from fiction as long as the narrative is against the political ideology she personally does not espouse.
In the abstract, she further says, “The Prime Minister has spoken only to a few selected media houses and has never been asked any tough questions in his five-year tenure. Furthermore, the media has been completely sidelined by this government by it going to the public, directly through social media. All of this has produced a very turgid and messy information situation”.
Further in the article, she writes, “Even the prime minister himself has favoured only a few media houses, and has given interviews only to a couple of them in his earlier tenure. He has rarely spoken to the press openly, i.e. in a press conference (Ghosh, 2019) and therefore, has never been asked any tough questions. Interviews that were published by a couple of media houses fell only very short of hagiographies. His colleagues in the cabinet have, of course, followed suit”.
This is again a culmination of patently false information coupled with a silly statement that betrays her veil of neutrality. Firstly, the claim that the Prime Minister spoke to only select media houses in his first tenure and in the run-up to elections is patently false.
Till the 2nd of November, which is before Kanchan Kaur’s article was accepted for publication, PM Modi had given interviews to the following channels and publications:
- Bangkok Post
- Economic Times
- Israel Hayom
- Network 18
- Indian Express
- Amar Ujala
- India TV
- Times Now
- The Wall Street Journal
- Russian media – TASS
- African Journalists
- Hindusthan Samachar
- Khaleej Times
- The Tribune
- Dainik Jagran
- TIME magazine
- Hindustan Times
- Today in Seychelles newspaper
- CNN’s Fareed Zakaria
- Swarajya Magazine
- India Today (AajTak)
And this is only between 21st September 2014 to 2nd November 2019.
One has to wonder if Kanchan Kaur’s definition of pliant media includes all of these publications and her definition of free and fair is only limited to NDTV. In fact, if it is Kanchan Kaur’s contention that all of these media houses are pliant and toe to the line of the government categorically, it would mean that she thinks India Today is a part of the pliant media group. And if she indeed believes that India Today, which is a part of TV Today Network, is pliant and ‘right-wing’, she will have to answer why she assessed TV Today Network and cleared them for IFCN certification.
This blatant lie by Kanchan Kaur is then laced with a ridiculous statement that betrays her intentions. She says that it is a problem that the Prime Minister has gone directly to the people of India to communicated “bypassing” the media. A Prime Minister is elected by the people of the country and not the media, contrary to what political hacks may believe and therefore, it is entirely desirable that the elected representative speaks to the people directly. It almost seems like that Kanchan Kaur, more than judging neutrality and facts, is more concerned with retaining the hegemony of the Left media and all her work, even with IFCN, is focussed to that end.
The last paragraph of the abstract reveals just how Kanchan Kaur may have a complicated relationship not just with facts but also with common sense. She writes, “With the government also interfering in education, it has become all the more difficult for most educators to introduce critical thinking courses in the country, even though various efforts have been made by Google News Initiative, Facebook and BBC Schools to introduce tools to debunk false information”.
Kanchan Kaur has taken it upon herself to assume that it was only after the Modi government came to power that the country’s collective ability to think critically has been decimated, or even worse, that the country does not have any critical thinking ability to differentiate between real and fake news because white masters like BBC aren’t succeeding in educating us.
The paragon of fact-checking obviously does not seem to recall how BBC had shown Chechnya footage during the Hazratbal operation in Kashmir to insinuate that Indian forces were firing at the shrine and their recent shenanigans in Kashmir as well which have been comprehensively debunked by the armed forces. The BBC’s shenanigans in Kashmir did not start recently, but in the 1990s with Indian Media maintaining stoic silence throughout.
Illiteracy and WhatsApp
Further in her article, Kanchan Kaur writes about how India tops the list in data consumption, especially on WhatsApp and streaming apps. Then, she connects that with illiteracy and fake news being consumed more because of it, and further, she connects all of that to the election victory of BJP. Connecting all of this is simply an example of the divorced relationship with common sense and illicit affair with propaganda that Kanchan Kaur seems to have.
Firstly, a basic level of literacy is essential even to use phones. One has to recognise numbers, letters and instructions. Even if those are in Hindi, the choice of language does not make someone “illiterate” – at least not for the ground that doesn’t consider BBC harbingers of virtue. And hence, citing 2011 literacy data with current mobile data consumption and connecting it to the spread of fake news seems most shallow and unsubstantiated. To top it all, Kanchan Kaur goes a step ahead and adds the following paragraph after talking about internet usage, WhatsApp and illiteracy.
“In the recent general elections, won clearly by the right-wing ruling party, BJP, WhatsApp was the main source of information (or misinformation or disinformation) for most voters. The party has itself claimed that it has over 3 million people in its WhatsApp groups (FM Staff, 2019). That was the situation a few months ago. Since then, the number is most likely to have risen“.
There is absolutely no connection between 2011 literacy data, the 2019 level of internet usage and BJP’s volunteers using WhatsApp, however, Kanchan Kaur, who is IFCN’s assessor, makes this connection simply to malign a party and an ideology she doesn’t agree with.
IFCN assessor laments that AltNews, The Quint etc have limited circulation? Seems so
Quoting the study by BBC, Kanchan Kaur says that most fake news is spread by the right-wing. As mentioned earlier in this article, she is not really concerned with the fact that BBC itself changed its position after their shoddy research was debunked. She further says that mainstream media is not really involved in fact-checking and fact-checking articles that bust political claims aren’t shared as much in closed groups. Considering Kanchan Kaur herself has a severe political bias and she only certifies websites whose political ideology lies with Congress and the Left, she is essentially saying that articles that falsely target PM Modi, BJP, the ‘right-wing’ or even Hindus aren’t shared as much.
While every individual is entitled to harbour political opinions, it is unfathomable that someone with a distinct political ideology would be touted by the IFCN as someone who can pass judgements on others’ neutrality for the purpose of fact-checking.
Corporate ownership of media houses
Of course, Kanchan Kaur goes on to lament that corporates and individuals close to BJP own the media and hence, she thinks that the media does not question the prime minister. She, of course, forgets to mention how the NDTV head is the relative of Communist party member, or how AAP members own digital news portals like NewsLaundry. She also forgets to add the personal political connections of several journalists, like Sonia Singh of NDTV to the Congress party. However, she uses this to allege that the media refuses to question the PM when Modi is arguably the most scrutinised and vilified prime minister.
One even recalls the soft-peddling interviews conducted by Rajdeep Sardesai of Sonia Gandhi and India Today of Rahul Gandhi, however, these facts don’t feature in Kanchan Kaur’s paper that is supposed to dispassionately talk about fake news.
IFCN and fact-checking – Solutions offered by Kanchan Kaur and the inherent political bias
Kanchan Kaur is distressed about the growing phenomenon of fake news while spreading fake news herself throughout her paper. The last section of her paper was dedicated to talking about “The need for long-lasting movements”.
She writes, “Therefore, there is an urgent need to counteract this movement of misinformation. In India, at least, we have an entire generation growing up on information that is suspect, with even history books being altered (Correspondent, 2017) to suit the worldview of the ruling party. Efforts have been made by global media giants – Google and Facebook in particular – to educate people on fake news and how to debunk it. Google held workshops at various levels in the country and trained over 8000 journalists in debunking fake news. Facebook, too, has made its efforts – holding workshops, and even alerting users when something on its feed had not been entirely true. Facebook has also appointed a team of the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) certified fact-checkers to flag content that may be suspicious (Disclosure: the author is an assessor helping IFCN certify fact-checkers)”.
She first says that fake news is being spread by the ‘ruling party’ by even altering history books. Firstly, it is pertinent to note that it has been the eternal grouse of the ‘right-wing’ that the BJP government is least interested in rectifying skewed history that was inserted by dangerous elements like Teesta Setalvad. Our history books have often glorified the Mughal rule and disparaged Hindu rulers. Beyond that, they have painted tyrants like Tipu Sultan as heroes. This description, of course, only skims the surface, however, it is an established fact that the Left has corrupted India’s education. This established fact is even acknowledged by Left historian William Dalrymple. He had admitted that Leftists and Marxist historians have skewed history books with their rose-tinted version of it.
However, despite all of this, Kanchan Kaur says that the BJP government is “distorting” history books. Unfortunately, BJP has shown no interest in rectifying history books. And even if it had, according to Kanchan Kaur, rectifying the rose-tinted and Left biased history in textbooks is akin to “distortion”. This clearly points to a political bias that is heavily towards the Left.
Further, she considers IFCN as a means to counter the “fake news” spread by the ruling party – BJP. In that case, how does one assume that the process of certification of IFCN is “neutral” and “bias-free” if its assessor is openly admitting that IFCN certified fact-checkers should and need to and essentially involve themselves in fact-checking the ruling party alone?
She further states:
“In India, fact-checking saw a sharp rise in interest just before the May 2019 general elections (Press Trust of India, Facebook…, 2019). Several fact-checking units applied to the IFCN for certification. There has been, of course, a corresponding dip in the applications post the elections. The interesting bit was that it was not just small players, working out of mom’s living room that was going at fake news with a heavy hand. Suddenly, even large media houses like the Times of India group and the India Today group set up fact-checking units certified by the IFCN.
Several of them were hired by Facebook and other such organizations to flag explicitly untrue content. The rise in interest, obviously, was because it was a source of revenue. However, most people who access information on social media (and that number is very large in India), as we have said before, do not put much effort to verify facts. WhatsApp content cannot be flagged because of the very nature of the platform. Facebook and Twitter have been taking steps to flag content that might not be true, but very few users are aware of the feature. Also, fact-checking has been accused of being partisan (Owen, 2018). Therefore, there is a need for something more long-lasting, something more substantial, i.e. critical thinking skills“.
In almost a Freudian slip, she admits that fact-checkers have been accused of being partisan. Firstly, she only says that they have been “accused” of such, all the while, assertion as a fact, that only one section spreads fake news. Further, in this Freudian slip, if she is admitting that fact-checkers like AltNews, Quint and BoomLive have been accused of being partisan, then the question arises as to why she gave them the certification of IFCN in the first place. And if she did, why has she not given certification to even one platform that has an ideology which is in opposition to the Left ideology.
Essentially, this paper that Kanchan Kaur has written is a testament to her own political bias. Fact-checkers who then conform to her political bias are accorded the IFCN certification by her. Then, those fact-checkers are hired by Facebook to further demonise the “right-wing” (for the lack of a better word) of India. The veneer of neutrality that IFCN of its assessor, Kanchan Kaur seems to put on, is just that – a veneer put on for public show. The kind of platforms that are certified by the Left-leaning assessors are a testament to the fact that neither are these fact-checkers neutral nor is IFCN or its assessors.