In Depth

What’s driving India’s fake news problem?

Research by BBC links spread of misinformation to nationalism

The BBC is launching an international initiative to tackle the spread of “fake news” and misinformation across the globe.

The project kicks off today with the Beyond Fake News conference in the Kenyan capital city of Nairobi, where the broadcaster is sharing the results of research based on in-depth analysis of messaging apps in India, Kenya and Nigeria.

India, in particular, appears to be in the grip of a fake news crisis. The BBC’s research found that many Indian social media users “made little effort to figure out the original source for what they shared”, reports Quartz.

The consequences have been serious and even fatal.

How is fake news spreading in India?

The BBC’s research used multiple methods to understand the circulation of fake news, including interviews and the analysis of 16,000 Twitter profiles and 3,200 Facebook pages, along with WhatsApp messages shared by 40 volunteers.

WhatsApp appeared to be the main driving force behind the spread of fake news in India. Fuelled by a distrust of mainstream news outlets, Indians are spreading information from alternative sources without verifying it. In doing so, they believe themselves to be promoting the “real story”, says Quartz.

Based on survey responses, the BBC found that many Indians “relied on markers like the kind of images in a message or who sent it to them” in order to decide “if it was worth sharing”.

As a result, messages from close friends and family members were often assumed to be trustworthy, regardless of whether they actually were.

Why is it spread?

Messages “centering on the ideas of nationalism and nation-building” were the most commonly shared fake news items, reports the Hindustan Times.

The BBC says that fake news is a central component of a “rising tide of nationalism” in which “facts were less important to some than the emotional desire to bolster national identity”.

The research found that there was also an “overlap” of fake news sources on Twitter and support networks of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

“The results showed a strong and coherent promotion of right-wing messages, while left-wing fake news networks were loosely organised, if at all, and less effective,” the broadcaster adds.

Jamie Angus, director of the BBC World Service Group, said: “Whilst most discussion in the media has focused on ‘fake news’ in the West, this piece of research gives strong evidence that a serious set of problems are emerging in the rest of the world where the idea of nation-building is trumping the truth when it comes to sharing stories on social media.”

What are the consequences?

According to a separate BBC analysis, “at least 32 people have been killed in the past year in incidents involving rumours spread on social media or messaging apps”.

In July, five men were lynched by a mob in a rural Indian village over false child kidnapping accusations spread via WhatsApp. More than 20 people were arrested over the killings.

Quartz reports that in response, the Indian government has “issued stern warnings to the Facebook-owned messaging service”, which has “limited the number of times a message can be forwarded in the country”.

But with national elections due to be held in April or May, the political consequences of fake news could be significant - and to “blame social media and WhatsApp would be to shoot the messenger”, says The Indian Express.

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