What The Nobel Peace Prize Buzz Means For The Misinformation Battle In India, A Fact Checker Explains

07 Oct 2022 13 min read  Share

On 4 October, an article in Time, listing fact-checkers Pratik Sinha and Mohammed Zubair as 'favourites' to win this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, delighted their legions of supporters while sending India’s rightwing ecosystem into a tizzy. Despite facing the wrath of the state, their organisation Alt News has persisted in debunking the lies and misinformation that help keep the Bharatiya Janata Party in power. In this interview, the night before the prize is announced, Sinha explains why the global recognition they are receiving is so important and so polarising.

Co founders of fact-checking website Alt News, Mohammed Zubair (L) and Pratik Sinha (R), were included in a list of "favourites" to win the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize/TWITTER

Delhi: Fact-checkers and co-founders of Alt News, Pratik Sinha and Mohammed Zubair, are among the favourites to win this year's Nobel Peace Prize, said an article in Time, published on 4 October, setting off a tsunami of reactions; ecstatic messages from their supporters and many very unkind ones from the right wing ecosystem, three days before the winner is announced (later today).

Nominated individuals are not officially listed. The Nobel Foundation's bylaws prohibit disclosing nomination information to the general public or individuals until 50 years. However, in recent years, a list of the favourites to win is based on nominations made public via Norwegian lawmakers, bookmakers’ odds, and a shortlist of the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO).

Of the 343 candidates – 251 individuals and 92 organisations – for the Nobel Peace Prize—this year’s list of favourites to win includes Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Belarusian opposition politician Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Russia’s jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the World Health Organisation (WHO), David Attenborough, Greta Thunberg, Harsh Mander and Karwan-e-Mohabbat, and Sinha and Zubair, among others. 

Zubair and Sinha, PRIO said, were the co-founders of Alt News, “a fact-checking site making significant contributions to debunking misinformation aimed at vilifying Muslims in India.

The winner is chosen by the Norwegian Nobel Committee, composed of five members appointed by the Norwegian parliament. 

Since 2017, Sinha and Zubair have been running a fact-checking website, analysing and dispelling false and propagandist information, a growing menace in India since the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in 2014. 

A total of 1,527 cases of fake news were recorded in the pandemic year — a 214% increase — against 486 cases in 2019 and 280 cases in 2018, when the category was first included by the National Crime Records Bureau

At any given time, Alt News and its founders face legal cases and notices, abuse and online threats of violence, generated mainly by those close to the BJP and the rightwing ecosystem, which has allowed and facilitated anti-Muslim hatred to spread far and wide. This summer, Zubair, after he brought global attention to the abuse of Islam’s Prophet by a BJP spokesperson, was arrested in many groundless cases, including for posting an image from a 1983 Hindi movie, and jailed for three weeks until granted bail by the Supreme Court. 

In this interview, Sinha explained whether they win or not, the enormous attention they have received raises the profile of fact-checkers and foregrounds the misinformation crisis they are battling in India. Meanwhile, the polarised reaction (here, here, here and here) to them being called favourites shows how divided the nation is. 

What are your thoughts on the reaction to the news that you are among the favourites to win the Nobel Peace Prize? 

Two things have happened since yesterday. Vir Das’ program of Two Indias is very much visible. There is one section which is congratulating us. So many people have expressed happiness and congratulated us and said the nicest of things. There is the other part which has gone absolutely bonkers. At no point has the Time article said that we are nominees. The methodology is clearly stated that what they are doing is speculative. They repeatedly go overboard. Whenever there is anything that goes against their narrative, they will try to delegitimise it. There are two things that have happened. And both give you a sense of satisfaction—the meltdown and the good wishes. But obviously, we value the wishes far more than the meltdown. 

What does this buzz around the Nobel Peace Prize mean for fact-checking and fact-checkers? 

It does two things. It highlights the issue of disinformation and hate speech in India and validation for Alt News. That is the reason for the right-wing meltdown. What do we represent? We represent a certain issue. There wouldn’t have been a reason for Alt News to exist unless there was an underlying issue. Over the past five years, we have focused on what is happening in terms of disinformation and hate speech. This sort of recognition validates the underlying issue. At this point, India is one of the largest producers of disinformation and hate speech. It is being done at an industrial scale in India, especially to villainise the Indian Muslim community. What this means is a global recognition of the issue that India is currently facing. 

What does this mean for you and your work? 

Recognition always helps, and such kind of recognition is beneficial as it brings you in front of an international audience, not just a national audience. So the only hope, with whatever recognition this has brought our way, is that the government will have to think harder next time before charging us with false cases. And, especially, the way they went after Zubair. So we hope that there'll be some extra security because of the recognition, that is what we are glad about.

What were the first few hours figuring out what all of this meant? 

In February 2022, the PRIO nominated us. It was an organisation somewhere in Oslo, Norway, to whom we have never spoken, and them saying that we are one of their recommendations for the Nobel Peace Prize. That puzzle has still not been solved. So, when we saw our names, we connected that this was a continuation of that, but still, of course, there was confusion over whether it was a nomination. Zubair and I chatted on Whatsapp. I went to the Nobel website. I found that the nominees are not announced for the past 50 years. Zubair sent me a message saying, ‘fact check karen kya.’ All of that happened. It was just a good feeling—the number of people congratulating us.

Will you be able to sleep tonight? 

I can sleep. While Time may have featured us in the sixth or seventh position, there are much bigger contenders than us. I’m going to sleep peacefully. Tomorrow is going to be like any other day. 

Given that this is not a nomination per se, is this all a bit of an overreaction?

If you look at the Time article itself, the tweet, and the quote tweets, it is all Indians. Nobody is talking about the others far above us in the pecking order. Of course, we are a large population, so that also matters. It also shows how polarised we are, how a certain section of the population is looking for a ray of hope while the other section is extremely agitated if anything like this happens. 

What do winning and losing mean? 

Losing wouldn’t make any difference. It doesn't matter. We will continue doing our work, we're doing this, and winning the prize was not something we were banking upon. I don't think there is anything like losing here because you lose something you're contending for, right?  But of course, if it's a win, who will not feel good about winning a Nobel?

Also, the significant amount of money that comes with it will be helpful since we are such a financially strapped organisation. So it'll be a massive recognition if that happens. But I think it is highly, highly unlikely for us to win. 

Have you thought about how the prime minister will congratulate you if you win? 

I haven’t because, not for a second, I thought this award would come our way. But if it does, he must act statesmanly and send out a small message. But look at how they go after Amartya Sen. They have been trying to defame him for a long time. For them, it is all about who is with them and who is not with them. We have been doing what we have been doing for five years. Ravish has been doing what he has been doing for 30 years. We know they did not have the decency to congratulate him.

What is the magnitude of misinformation in India? 

I think that the amount of disinformation, misinformation, and hate speech generated in India is probably one of the highest in the world, owing to the size of our population. So the flow of such information is enormous. And the fact that platforms like Facebook, Twitter, etc., they're not handling this issue satisfactorily adds to the problem for several reasons.

What influences the circulation of misinformation?

The very purpose of misinformation is to set narratives. One needs to understand that misinformation is a subset of propaganda, and propaganda is what political parties use to set narratives. The political parties today have realised (its importance) because 20 years back when social media was not prevalent, it did not exist. Any sort of political propaganda meant printing pamphlets, door-to-door campaigning and sloganeering. Also, that could only be done so often because it was labour-intensive, financially exhaustive and other things. So it was not something that could not be done regularly. And it was typically done during elections and things like that.

Now that we are living in a world of social media now, narratives can easily be set around individual issues. So, for example, when there was a farmers' protest, there was a set of propaganda around that. When there were anti-CAA and NRC protests, there was propaganda sitting around that.

So there is an attempt to mould public perception around every issue or event in favour of the government. I'm not just saying that it is happening on one side.

That’s prevalent on the other side as well. But [we have to consider that] whose use is more dangerous, more organised? And that comes from Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) and its supporters. There is no parallel to how they misused social media and weaponised social media to set narratives.

How does this creation and dissemination of misinformation benefit the ruling party?

In this case, one of the major plans is to create the narrative that Indian Muslims are responsible for many of the issues that we [as a country] are facing, whether it is unemployment or inflation, whatever the problems are—so creating a target group who can be blamed constantly for anything that happens in the country. And to make that narrative, there is a lot of misinformation.

Over time, with the constant output of disinformation, the community becomes a comfortable punching bag for any issue, leading to further villainization.

For example, the video where an anchor sitting in a mainstream news channel is glorifying violence against the Muslim community in the most grotesque manner also means that now we have come to a place where the Muslim population is villianised to the extent that a news anchor can sit in his studio and do the sort of broadcast that he did. So what misinformation has done is increasingly create this perception in people's minds that everything can be blamed on the Indian Muslim population. 

Why are popular social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter unable to combat fake news and disinformation?

Just because Facebook is partnering with third-party fact-checkers, which is more of a PR initiative, does not mean they successfully combat misinformation. There are so many things that can be done even with technology. For example, the recent [Facebook] whistleblower Frances Haugen in the US, one of the things in her petition has said is that Facebook does not have language classifiers, which lets you help in figuring out whether certain forms of speech are hateful or not, in India.

Because the first round of moderation on any social media is through automated algorithms and machine learning, if you don't have language classifiers for various Indian languages, there is no way you can detect hate. In a country of over a billion people, not every piece of data content can be checked by a human moderator. It would be just impossible to do that. 

With Twitter, there's no consistency on the platform. Every two months, they'll wake up, mark one video as misleading, and then go back to sleep. Where is the consistency as a platform? For example, this News 18 video has been on for over a day, right? Almost a day now, and there's the complete glorification of violence. Do they not see that there's a glorification of violence?  If this kind of glorification had been in the US, they would've taken action because a lot of the execution of their policies depends on what is acceptable in a social form in a country and what is not. [In India], it's okay to put out videos that glorify violence. So Twitter is acting accordingly. The policy is not consistent. 

What are the obstacles you and your organisation deal with?

Most of the challenge is actually in legal form because we are in a space where we are constantly pointing fingers at people. So we are always susceptible to defamation notices and cases. Jagaran has a defamation case going on against us currently. But beyond that, we all know what happened with Zubair, and he was targeted personally for his tweets, which are entirely based on false cases. And why was that done? That was a signal to us that we better behave, or else this is what we can do with you.  And obviously,  there are challenges in terms of not having enough people, for example.

I would want more people in the organisation who are documenting hate speech, writing on violence, and monitoring social media, and that needs a lot more finances. So those challenges are also there, that is, expanding the organisation and paying decent salaries. And also, we are working in a very, very toxic space. We constantly look at hate speech and misinformation, working in a very toxic space. 

How does working closely on hate speeches affect you and your colleagues? 

My colleagues say that it becomes overwhelming for them. And again, we work with very young people. Most of my colleagues are [in the age bracket of] 22-25. So working with very young people is especially hard. I'm not being ageist here, but I think it is especially hard for them. When you first step into the industry, this is the first thing you see in your professional life. There is so much hate and misinformation, and you must constantly work on it. 

How optimistic are you about the future of journalism in this country?

I sometimes feel that there is hope, and sometimes there is just despondency. It is not a constant emotion. But generally, things are looking very dark, and I don't think they will change anytime soon, at least as far as mainstream media is concerned.

More and more people doing independent work and finding an audience gives me hope. That also shows that people want independent journalism and that there is still some space for it. But it is shrinking increasingly, and there is a sense of fear everywhere.

What are your future goals on an organizational level? 

We want to go beyond journalism for the next 2-3 years. We want to work in education around fake news and digital literacy. We want to create school curriculums for young children. Research in other countries has shown that information literacy makes children more adept at developing a critical lens towards the information they're consuming. And right now, that sort of education doesn't exist in India. And if we are even to create a small successful model, which can be replicated, then that would be an achievement.

(Jyoti Thakur is an independent journalist based in New Delhi. Hanan Zaffar is a reporter based in South Asia. He has reported for, among others, VICE, Al Jazeera, DW News, and Newsweek.)