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Fighting fake news: Preparing India's police force to counter the threat

Police can address the fake news issue at the law and order level, but lacuna lies in understanding the core issue and fundamentally addressing it at the community level

fake news
When incidents of violence and unrest take place, it’s usually the police that are at the forefront to deal with it | Photo: Shutterstock

In November last year, the Assam Police ran a social media campaign against fake news called ‘Don’t Fake it’, which drew inspiration from popular songs such as Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, and children’s fictional character Pinocchio.

This was a first of its kind social media campaign against fake news by a police force in India. The campaign was not only well received in Assam, but even attracted massive engagement on Twitter and Facebook.

It was around this time that Digital Empowerment Foundation also started a series of workshops called ‘Fighting Fake news’ to spread awareness about the problem among police officers in 11 states.

When incidents of violence and unrest take place, it’s usually the police that are at the forefront to deal with it. To curb the crime, they need to nab the culprit. How do you trace the culprit on an encrypted platform though? Further, the police can address it at the law and order level, but the lacuna lies in understanding the core issue and fundamentally addressing it at the community level. Unfortunately, the understanding of fake news and misinformation was found to be lacking in the junior and older police officers.

While there is no denying that private messaging platform WhatsApp is used by persons with malicious intent to incite violence and/ or spread misinformation, the same platform is also extensively used by police officers for sharing classified information and reaching out to communities. Yet, our interactions with the police personnel indicate that most of them, including those in the cyber departments, don’t really understand the concept of encryption. Many believed that the CBI or the Delhi Police must have a way to de-encrypt the platform. In fact, when participants from the police first force walked into our workshops, most of them were expecting that we would teach them a hack to bypass the encryption. These were the same people who left our workshops a little disappointed.

On the brighter side, officers from police IT cells were especially drawn towards learning about fact-checking organisations like AltNews and BoomLive to verify information. The technique of image-reverse search to verify the authenticity of a photograph also found instant takers. Now they are providing fact-checking assistance to the local communities they serve.

Our workshops also helped us realise that police IT cells in various districts are working in silos. Sharing of information and learning between them is almost non-existent. And so, we’ve helped create a WhatsApp group with the heads of the IT cells from locations where we carried out this workshop, so that they can network, share learnings and coordinate efforts. And we’ve seen some good efforts already. Recently, the IT cell of Balaghat Police in Madhya Pradesh encountered a fake video circulating in their area, inciting communal tension. The IT cell immediately verified it through AltNews and stopped its circulation. There’s also greater awareness about the redressal officer who has been especially appointed by WhatsApp to look into various issues arising in India, and how to seek information from WhatsApp in case of serious offenders.

During one of the workshops, a senior police officer had said, “When you receive a message on WhatsApp, close your eyes for five seconds. If you think that the message will have a negative impact if shared, refrain from forwarding it.”

Realisations have set in, and being equipped with relevant knowledge and awareness is paramount to maturely address issues that are surfacing because of inevitable technological growth. At the end of the day, onus is on people to ensure positive use and impact of technology, and the police have to play an important role of the enlightened catalyst.

Osama Manzar is founder and director of Digital Empowerment Foundation. He can be followed @osamamanzar . DEF has been doing a nationwide workshops on “Misinformation & Fighting Fakenews”, targeting more than 100,000 people.