While the Narendra Modi government at the Centre burnt its fingers over an unsuccessful attempt to 'rein in' mainline media over alleged fake news dissemination, India’s nascent fake news busting business is finding high-profile takers. Three of them – OpIndia, Alt News and BOOM – stand out prominently for the intensity of their coverage and the hawk (if sometimes jaundiced) eye they keep on fact-checking news and calling out the so-called fake news.
Writer-activist Arundhati Roy’s trust donated to the left-leaning Alt News, while Manipal Global Education Chairman T V Mohandas Pai and Infosys founder N R Narayana Murthy have put their weight behind the right-of-centre OpIndia. (see graphic)
Lie busters or political agents?
“Most of the fake news is originating from people aligned with the BJP. People aligned with the Congress have not propagated fake news with the same frequency yet. We try to bust fake news irrespective of the political spectrum and we do not have any political affiliations,” says Govindraj Ethiraj, the promoter of BOOM, a Mumbai-based fake news busting website which started operations in 2016.
OpIndia’s chief editor Nupur Sharma has a different take: “Those peddling fake information come from all kinds of political or ideological affiliations. Anyone claiming to the contrary has to be a peddler of fake news himself or herself. We have declared ideological inclination, which we have made clear at various places. I have very honestly told you that it is the leftist narrative that we are up against. We do not claim to be ideologically neutral, unlike many in the mainstream media who are leftist but pretend to be centrist or neutral. We are right-leaning and will continue to be so.”
Alt News founder Pratik Sinha has a more nuanced view. “I have an ideological leaning. I am oriented towards the Left. But I don’t have a political leaning. I don’t support a political party. Not even the Left. The problem of fake news and inaccurate information is more acute in TV channels. They are always in a hurry to put out news without checking the veracity of the facts. For instance, in the case of the stay on the order of disqualification of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) MLAs, many channels put out the opposite of what the court had ruled. I think the problem is not ideological. The problem is with the business model of news,” says Sinha.
Alt News: Control Alt Left
Sinha’s Alt News receives individual donations ranging anywhere from Rs 9 to Rs 1,000. True to Sinha’s left leanings, Alt News has been set up as a non-profit firm. According to him, one organisation called the Zindabad Trust has donated an unspecified sum to his website operating out of Sinha’s home in Ahmedabad, with just three employees including Sinha himself. The Zindabad Trust is managed by writer-activist Arundhati Roy. Roy had reportedly set up this trust from her 1997 Booker Prize award money. In a written reply, Roy confirmed she had donated to Alt News “because it is doing a wonderful job of trying to set the record straight and counter the propaganda masqueraded as news.”
While it is not clear when Roy donated that money, Alt News carried a story on January 22, 2018, defending Roy over statements floating around in social media that the website found she had never made. Alt News counter-checked Roy’s interviews with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and verified other sources to conclude that Roy had never said “Islamic terrorism isn’t the real problem. Mothers and teachers are real terrorists.” While much of the year-old Alt News’s coverage is factual, its focus is evidently and overwhelmingly on media organisations like Arnab Goswami’s Republic TV and Times Group's Times Now.
Arnab Goswami, the Mumbai-based chief of Republic TV is known to be a sharp critic of Arundhati Roy. “These channels and many other channels are pro-establishment. There is a need to have someone taking an anti-establishment stance. It would be wrong to say we focus on a few channels. Big media houses have various channels – some of which are pro-establishment while others not quite,” says Sinha, when asked about his overwhelming coverage of select media houses.
According to Site Worth Traffic, an online traffic monitor, Alt News has more than 7,000 unique visitors every day. Sinha, a software engineer based in Vietnam, returned to India and set up the web portal ‘Truth of Gujarat’ around the time the second chargesheet in the Ishrat Jahan encounter case was filed. Sinha said his father, who was the lawyer for the Gujarat riot victims, had so much information that it deserved to be put out for public consumption.
OpIndia: One step forward, two steps right
While Alt News is taking baby steps in one direction, its antipode OpIndia has better financial muscle and editorial firepower. OpIndia is owned by Kovai Media Private Ltd, which also operates the right-leaning Swarajya magazine. The highest-profile investor in Kovai Media is former Infosys director and Manipal Global Education Chairman T V Mohandas Pai. As of March 31, 2017, Pai held 39,786 shares, representing a little above three per cent stake in the company. According to Nupur Sharma, OpIndia was taken over by Kovai Media in October 2016. A smaller stake, amounting to 23,872 shares (or almost two per cent) is held by Catamaran Ventures, whose promoter is Infosys founder N R Narayana Murthy. Kovai Media’s financial performance has slowly picked up over the years. Its revenue from operations was almost Rs 7.7 million in 2016-17, a threefold growth over the previous year.
It received Rs 3.5 million in advertisement revenue and almost Rs 2.3 million in subscriptions. It also upped the ante in paying freelance writers. In 2016-17, it paid almost Rs 12 million to freelance writers – double the amount it paid the previous year. Understandably, OpIndia would constitute a small portion of Kovai Media’s scheme of things.
Sharma says OpIndia gets bare minimum operational expenses from Swarajya and its guest authors are not paid for their contributions
Most of the fake news-busting articles written on the website do not have a byline. Unlike Alt News, OpIndia seems to have paid greater attention to political fact-checking. In particular, it seems to have a strong dislike for Congress President Rahul Gandhi and New Delhi-based NDTV television channel and some of its anchors. A look at OpIndia’s fake news coverage shows a plethora of stories on NDTV and some of its staff.
Of late, OpIndia has also taken upon itself to defend a few Cabinet ministers who have been accused of impropriety by some web-based news sites. OpIndia editor Nupur Sharma says: “The most obvious form is where incidents or facts/figures are invented and a fiction is peddled as real event. The biggest source of such forms of fake news is, unfortunately, the social media, especially WhatsApp. However, such fake news is also the easiest to debunk. The other kind, which cannot categorically be called fake news but is qualitatively no better, is when you fuddle information on purpose and confuse people about facts – such manipulation is widespread and even accepted in the mainstream media, and that is what is more difficult to debunk. That is our focus.”
OpIndia, which was originally founded in 2014 by Rahul Raj & Kumar Kamal before being acquired, had more than 8,000 daily unique visitors to its website according to Site Worth Traffic.
BOOM: Ecosystem of fact-checking
Nupur Sharma’s definition of fake news also finds resonance with Govindraj Ethiraj – he agrees on the role of non-institutional sources like social media and messaging platforms like WhatsApp in the proliferation of fake information. Social media’s inherent viral nature, according to Ethiraj, “adds velocity and veracity to fake news”. Ethiraj runs BOOM, a new fake news busting website. He isn’t new to the business of lie-busting, either. He is the brain behind IndiaSpend and FactChecker – both of which use primary or secondary data, unlike OpIndia and others, to separate wheat from the chaff and call a bluff. Ethiraj claims that his outfit is a verified member of Poynter Institute's International Fact Checking Network.
Unlike Sinha and Sharma, Ethiraj is a business journalist who believes that those taking political sides in the business of fake news-busting won’t be able to carry on doing so for long. BOOM is part of Ethiraj’s Ping Digital Broadcast Network, based in Mumbai and with an office in Dubai. In 2016-17, it clocked an impressive turnover of Rs 439 million – a 153 per cent rise over 2015-16. It dubbed Rs 278 million worth of payments to those who contributed to its platforms as ‘talent share fees.’
Its top guns, including Ethiraj and two other directors, took home pay checks of over Rs 10 million a year each. Its shareholding patterns look straight out of a Silicon Valley soap opera – an angel investor in Los Angeles with a small share, Ethiraj with 68 per cent stake, and a generous sprinkling of company stock with various junior employees. By the look of it, BOOM has a wider canvas than OpIndia and Alt News. Despite Ethiraj’s conviction that more fake news is originating from people linked to the BJP, his editorial approach is more issue-based than that of Alt News and OpIndia. Ethiraj says he does not expect his fake news-busting venture to be a money spinner. It’s all about a crusade against misinformed propaganda, he says.
The global fight against political lying
These three platforms epitomise the growing culture of fact-checking but are still a far cry from the journalistic standards set in more advanced European societies. As opposed to India, where mainstream media, barring a few, barely do political fact-checking, European societies are rife with them. According to a report by the Reuters Institute at Oxford University, Europe is studded with legacy organisations having their own fact-checking and fake news-busting mechanisms.
In France there is Libération’s Désinto, Le Monde’s Les Décodeurs and Le Nouvel Observateur’s Les Pinocchios. In the United Kingdom, Channel 4, Guardian and the British Broadcasting Corporation run their own fact-checking segments. Denmark Broadcasting Corporation runs a fact-checking show called Detektor on radio and TV. In Spain, TV station La Saxta broadcasts El Objetivo con Ana Pastor, a programme that contains fact-checking segments.
The Reuters Institute report notes, “The fact-checking phenomenon invariably raises the question of what we can reasonably hope to accomplish by holding public figures accountable for false statements. Among media and political elites’ events like the US election and the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom have spurred anxious talk of a ‘post-fact’ or ‘post-truth’ age. At the same time, a growing body of evidence suggests that, while it falls short of the sometimes utopian hopes attached to it, fact-checking can help both dispel misinformation and inhibit political lying.”
But Arundhati Roy is more sceptical about the potential impact of such initiatives. Roy says, “Factually false news, deliberately faked news, deliberately spread lies and rumours and outlandish assertions that are based on prejudices that arise from caste-based and religious bigotry all overlap to form the ecosystem of misinformation that we live in. How can it be checked in any formal, systematic way when the most powerful sections of the establishment have the highest stakes in it?”