Crusaders of change: A Conversation with the founders of AltNews

By Shruti Uikey*

Fake news has emerged a new menace, whose purveyors proclaim themselves as journalists and taint this noble profession. — Ram Nath Kovind

In the context to understand the menace of spread of disinformation and the negative consequences of it, a group of 3 students from IIM Ahmedabad moved into an interview with Nirjhari Sinha, Director, Pravda Media Foundation, the parent company of Alt News and founder-member of a Gujarat-based civil liberties organisation Jan Sangharsh Manch and her son Pratik Sinha, Founder, Alt News to learn from their experiences in the field and a vision for the future thereof.

Fact-checkers like Alt News are striving to counter instances of such falsifications with evidence-backed facts and proven truths. But, given the scale of the phenomenon and in the absence of an automated fact-checking mechanism, it gets tough to stay committed to such a movement.

Nirjhari Sinha, in the interview shared that her drive to get into politics was during the 2002 Gujarat riots after realizing the need for someone to step up and speak. The zeal to get into the thick of democracy and have a substantial impact on society motivated her to contribute to the movement against fake news. She has dedicated her life working on various social causes and working on Alt news was another channel for her to contribute towards making a positive impact. She believes that the collective power of movements, exchange of knowledge and continuous education is the way to ensure longevity and sustenance of a movement.

Her son, Pratik Sinha, who spent his initial days in the US working as a software developer, attributed the main motivation for him to initiate such a movement leaving behind a lucrative job is his social conditioning. Having spent a majority of his time listening to his parents involved in social activities, he realized that his work in the US was meant for elites and did not impact the masses.

The mother-son duo shared the following pecking order for matters on which myths are busted:

  • If something is currently viral or if someone with significant social standing is promoting it (even if it has not gone viral at that point) because of their reach such articles are prioritized
  • If it is communal in nature, falsely targeting an identity or community: can create polarization further can catch on easily
  • Medical misinformation that endangers someone’s life (e.g. AYUSH ministry endorsed a homeopathic drug that claimed it will help stop you from getting infected by corona but it was completely false); (Only 1 trial of ashwagandha has some data which has not even been published and other 8 trials have not even been conducted yet but it was still being promoted)
  • Misinformation used to target individuals to defame them e.g. Gurmehar Kaur goes viral then you show her dancing & drinking to skew views
  • Issue-based also like elections, France, etc.; misinformation is linked to current affairs – because it is being used to shift narratives and misinformation is weaponized

The order is helpful for any reader to question the news being consumed by them. Even if one in every ten readers starts questioning the legitimacy of the news being read, misinformation can be curbed by a huge margin.

Following is an excerpt from the interview where an instance of the positive impact of AltNews was shared-

It was claimed that protesters were chanting Pakistan zindabad in Lucknow and a video was also circulated along with that. A BJP leader pushed the video to many news media houses too. However, in the video the name of a local leader is being chanted. Since we(AltNews) reacted quickly to this fake story and the fact check reached the media houses on time, they refused to cover the story. Further, as soon as we had fact checked it, News18 deleted their tweet.”

Link to the fact checked news:https://www.altnews.in/no-anti-caa-protesters-did-not-chant-pakistan-zindabad-in-lucknow-rally/

In the interview they shared that while the above case is one scenario where the impact was known publicly, many times the impact is internal and goes unknown to the public. For instance, many times journalists inform AltNews that post seeing their fact checking they inform their editors to not cover certain stories. It is when the people associated with AltNews are further driven to stay committed to the cause and help in giving fact-based news to the readers.

Similar to many social activists, those associated with AltNews had to face some negative consequences from people in positions of power. Along with multiple notices from media houses, death threats, there was also an extreme case where one of the employees was falsely charged with POSCO (sexual violence on children). However, taking a prudent approach Pratik Sinha shared that as activists they were aware of how to deal with such cases.

In Pratik Sinha’s own words, the interview ended with him talking about how a small organization like AltNews is trying to both sustain and impact society positively.

Different models work for different platforms. Since we are publishing in English, our audience is people with a higher income level. Hence, we are able to sustain ourselves. Vernacular media is finding it very difficult to sustain unless they have advertisers. But as soon as ads come in, the govt comes along with it and the editorial then gets influenced. So, currently, we are writing a fact-checking book. Here the online version shall be free cos the basic principle is knowledge should be free. However, the digital version (epub, pdf) shall be payable with the idea that those who can pay should pay.”

The hour-long interview highlighted the arduous journey social activists like Pratik Sinha and Nirjhari Sinha take to prevent the spread of misinformation. The interview substantiated the importance of early intervention to identify the need of filtering the news being consumed. An important step towards this is by introducing mandatory media literacy in the curriculum of state and national boards. A petition was initiated in this regard addressing the stakeholders involved in influencing the curriculum.

Help support the cause by signing this petition: http://chng.it/NCqcdfQf8L

*IIM Ahmedabad, PGP in Management

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