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इमेज: मैसूर में एक मतदाता सहायता केंद्र पर जानकारी लेते हुए भारतीय नागरिक, अप्रैल 2024, इमेज - शटरस्टॉक
इमेज: मैसूर में एक मतदाता सहायता केंद्र पर जानकारी लेते हुए भारतीय नागरिक, अप्रैल 2024, इमेज - शटरस्टॉक

Indian citizens in Mysuru getting help at a voter assistance booth, April 2024. Image: Shutterstock




Lessons Learned from the Fact-Checking Collective That Covered India’s National Elections

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The Global Risk Report 2024 from the World Economic Forum states that misinformation is one of the greatest threats countries around the world face. India, the largest democracy in the world, is identified as one of the nations with the most significant risk associated with disinformation and misinformation. This is particularly important because India just concluded its national elections, and more than 50 other countries around the world go to polls this year. What an unprecedented time and a test for democracies globally!

There is so much to learn from Indian elections in terms of how misinformation vectors circulate in different formats, languages, and regions online. The media and information landscape is rapidly evolving in India, as more and more people are gaining access to the internet, mostly via their phones. Today, more than half of Indians, 870 million people, are active internet users. This is creating a new challenge as reliable sources of news are frequently drowned out by unverified information online.

We are increasingly learning from elections worldwide that misinformation has a potential to deceive voters and undermine their trust in the electoral processes. People are growing up in a world with more choices for information than at any point in human history. This creates a major challenge as people struggle to distinguish between truthful and false information. Research says that the more individuals are exposed to falsehoods, the greater the likelihood they are to believe them, even when the information contradicts their existing beliefs. In such a scenario elections become a hotbed of contestations and put democracy to its most difficult test.

The commitment to hold steadfast to preserving values of democracy and sanctity of voters’ decision based on facts led to the creation of Shakti – India Election Fact Checking Collective, supported by the Google News Initiative. This initiative was spearheaded by DataLEADS in partnership with the Misinformation Combat Alliance (MCA), BOOM, The Quint, Vishvas News, Factly, Newschecker, among other leading fact-checking organizations and news publishers like India Today and Press Trust of India (PTI). This coalition of Indian fact-checkers and publishers that came together in the run up to the 2024 Indian elections to enhance the early detection of election-related misinformation and deepfakes, as well as amplify the dissemination of fact-checks in regional languages. This was the biggest collaboration so far in India between fact-checkers and publishers to fight misinformation.

In India, as part of the Shakti Collective, it was incredible to see how diverse news organizations, including competitors, came together to address the common threat of misinformation. Nearly 50-plus organizations, comprising prominent fact-checkers and established newsrooms — big and small, across the country — came together to be part of the Collective. Every single day during the last three months, the more than 260 fact-checkers, reporters, and editors collaborated to identify misinformation and combat harmful and misleading content, conspiracy theories, bogus poll surveys, and AI-generated deepfakes. Publishers joined in and amplified the fact-check content and protected millions of voters from poll-related misinformation. This election fact-checking effort has been supported by deepfake and synthetic media experts from renowned institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Technology and other leading AI organizations. These experts emphasized the crucial role that tools and technology play in debunking misinformation, particularly deepfakes.

Shakti Fact-Checking Collective India Elections

Image: Screenshot, Shakti

At DataLEADS we have been at the front of leading the fight against misinformation over the last many years. Our previously initiated work in fighting misinformation has led to training and capacity building programs throughout India and beyond. Supported by the Google News Initiative, we run one of the world’s largest training networks, which has benefitted hundreds of newsrooms and thousands of journalists in more than 10 languages across India and has helped build a robust fact-checking ecosystem in the country. Journalists within the network were chosen through an open call process, followed by the implementation of Train the Trainer (ToT) programs in various languages nationwide. These journalists, stationed across India, have since emerged as ambassadors of the network dedicated to debunking misinformation and fostering a robust information ecosystem. FactShala, India’s largest media literacy network, has enabled diverse communities and individuals around the country with tools and approaches to consume information critically and responsibly.

It is thanks to these efforts that today India has the largest number of fact-checkers in the world, who are at the frontline in this global fight against misinformation. This is a stark contrast to 2018, when there were only two to three fact-checking organizations in the country. Today India has 17 International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN)-certified fact-checking organizations, the most of any country. The United States, by comparison, has 12.

Our efforts have consistently been focused on building resilience against misinformation and empowering journalists, newsrooms, and engaged citizens with tools to fight the menace of mis- and disinformation. The goal post of Shakti – India Election Fact Checking Collective aligned with this collaborative mission, to build a society that values and thrives on critical consumption of information.

FactShala - India's largest media literacy network

FactShala is India’s largest media literacy network. Image: Screenshot, FactShala

Media organizations face precarious circumstances as their responsibilities have increased manifold. The expectation of an increase in AI-generated content sparked considerable worries about misinformation particularly during elections. The volume of AI-generated misinformation on social media has been comparatively low but certainly an indication how deepfakes can threaten our society.

The future poses a formidable challenge to the working of democracy in India as misinformation continues to batter trust in democracy and its allied institutions. Given the number of elections happening around the world this year, it will be exceedingly challenging to identify and combat AI-generated misleading and harmful content in a timely manner.  Misinformation tactics travel fast from one country to another. It will be a challenge for newsrooms to monitor and check the content from diverse regional languages unless there is a concerted and focused collaborative effort towards addressing such facets of the larger information ecosystem. It has never been more important for different stakeholders to form collaborations and join hands to be able to fight election-related misinformation.

The Shakti collaboration provides significant insights and reveals emerging patterns of election-related misinformation in India, particularly during the election period. Most election misinformation was found in visual content, such as images and videos. But misinformation also involved cloned voices of key celebrities and youth icons, aiming to influence first-time voters and the youth. The misinformation campaign mostly targeted key political leaders, political parties and their manifestos, and election processes, including electronic voting machines (EVM) and voter-verified audit trails, among others.

While a high number of election-related deepfakes were anticipated, the incidents involving deepfakes were fewer than expected during the Indian elections. There was also a spike in misinformation in regional languages during this election, mostly related to EVMs being rigged and manipulated. There was comparatively lesser violence during this election, however. During the 2019 vote, some states witnessed violence that largely contributed to a large amount of disinformation and hate campaigns, including hateful songs on social media, but these acts were relatively lower in 2024. Also the misinformation/disinformation was multi-dimensional; it didn’t affect one political party, but all the political parties were at the receiving end, including the ruling party.

There are a lot of lessons to be learned from this year’s Indian elections about how misinformation vectors move from one platform to other and how they become viral. The insight can be extremely useful in developing technological solutions to address election related misinformation and could also be useful for content monitoring and fact-checking elections in other countries.

Given the change in the information landscape globally, it is high time that we exemplify collaboration, trust, and resilience to minimize the impact of misinformation and foster a more informed and resilient society. One of the key interventions we adopted under the Shakti Collective has attempted to tackle the primary challenge of reach and amplification of fact checks to build a shield against misinformation. Fighting misinformation remains a complex challenge that will necessitate innovation in the fact-checking space and a deeper understanding of information consumption patterns. Together, we need to stand guard at the sacred gates of democracy to fight the demon of misinformation.

Toni Morrison famously said, “When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.” This has to be the spirit to build community surveillance and intelligence against misinformation, to empower citizens and set them free from competing narratives intended to mislead them, to guard them against misinformation intended to erode their trust in society, and not let devious actors dismantle integrity that elections hold in a pluralist society.

Editor’s Note: Syed Nazakat is a GIJN board member but writes here in his capacity as a journalist in India. This post is syndicated and has been lightly edited.

Syed NazakatSyed Nazakat is founder and CEO of DataLEADS, a New Delhi-based, award-winning, globally recognized digital media and tech company spearheading a series of fact-checking, digital safety, and information literacy initiatives. 

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