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Above: (Clockwise from top left) A TMC supporter circulated  pictures of a man dressed as Hanuman, saying he was “Jagannath Sarkar, BJP MP candidate from Ranaghat” in West Bengal. But the truth is Sarkar was not dressed as Hanuman at all; An image of Pakistan PM Imran Khan interacting with his country’s army chief was circulated on social media. Congress leaders Shatrughan Sinha and Navjot Singh Sidhu, Mamata Banerjee and Rahul Gandhi can also be seen in the frame. But the original photo has no Indian leader; a homepage of the AltNews website and A digitally manipulated image of Bollywood stars Ranveer Singh and Deepika Padukone was posted on Facebook, showing them with saffron scarves with “Vote for BJP N Modi” written on them

By Inderjit Badhwar

Because of the alarming spread of fake news—another phrase for the dissemination of deliberately concocted disinformation to propagate an ideology, ruin a reputation, distort history, falsify irrefutable eyewitness accounts—social media, the mothership on which such garbage is loaded and transported, has justly been vilified as the scourge of the century. An all-consuming plague. The apotheosis of Orwell’s dystopian 1984.

Conversely, it is also hailed as an antidote to news and propaganda monopolies of governments and information oligopolies—a platform from which alternative viewpoints can be heard, a safe haven for upright and truth-seeking journalists who have been bounced from their mainstream media jobs by bosses displeased by their obsession for seeking the truth, a relatively inexpensive, affordable digital substitute for electronic transmission to a worldwide audience. A tool for the blossoming of endless Arab Springs.

But then, how do we know which is the truth—the argument or the counter-argument? The solution is not as difficult as it sounds. The simple word for it is research. Evidence-backed fact-finding and observation. It is the same process that led to the dropping of fake news such as that the earth is flat or that the sun revolves around the earth or that Lord Ganesha was the product of plastic surgery.

Newspaper reportage or TV journalism not too long ago was pure fact-finding. You went sniffing for the facts or tried to dig them out from where they lay buried and earned, therefore, the names “newshounds” or “muckrakers”. That was called old-fashioned reporting. The point of view emerged from the facts rather than vice versa unless, of course, you were a pamphleteer. In today’s world, fact-checking—or real reporting— has assumed a new dimension. Instead of “newsgathering” a breaking story, today’s fact-checkers have an entirely new dimension to their métier: They busy themselves with copious research into whether published or broadcast material in the mainstream or social media, or public utterances by politicians, are indeed true.

True, these fact-checkers, despite their fastidiousness and devotion to letting the chips fall where they may, and their understanding of morphed and photo-shopped disinformation and lies, do not have the same audience as the paid armies of disinformation specialists and trolls. But they are the harbingers of a brave new world of muckrakers. As more and more people pay attention to their websites and portals, the Goliaths of prevarication, mendacity, falsehoods and deception will face an increasing number of slings and shots to deal with.

Fact-checking, thanks to The New York Times, Washington Post, and CNN, has risen exponentially in the US ever since Donald Trump’s White House turned into a fake news factory. India, with social media users who probably exceed the population of America, is catching up with this trend, and faster than most people would imagine. YouTube digital platforms in all languages are full of sxposés and critiques of the foibles and fantasies and often outright lies of mainstream magazines, newspapers and broadcast outlets. The leading fact-check giant is AltNews with a skeleton staff and a genius for research. AltNews, once confined to small corners of the web, has now earned nationwide respect with its editors much in demand on popular talk shows. But AltNews does not need that publicity. Today, when AltNews speaks, people listen because its credibility and devotion to its mission have been beyond reproach.

As fake news has multiplied exponentially this election season, so have investigations by AltNews. Hopefully, this scourge will retreat after the elections are over. As a tribute to this organisation and its editors, I reproduce in the next four pages excerpts from their various posts—AltNews’ Arjun Sidharth’s round-up of political misinformation that dominated the social media in poll season:

  • Fake newspaper clip with fake quote from Mamata Banerjee.

A purported newspaper clipping of a popular Bengali daily (Bartaman) was shared on social media with its headline reading: “Give me 42 seats & I’ll show you how to make the Hindus cry: Mamata.” The image had also circulated on WhatsApp.

AltNews found that the image was photoshopped. A careful glance at the clipping was sufficient to reveal that the image had been morphed. The font, size and colour of the words “Hindu” and “cry” do not match the words in the rest of the sentence. They are not in perfect alignment, are larger than the other words and are in a deeper shade of black. Moreover, some words were replaced from the original image.

  • False claim of buildings in Italy owned by Gandhi family.

A man points at magnificent European architecture and claims that Congress President Rahul Gandhi owns the lavish property. “He has looted India and bought these buildings in Italy,” the man says in Gujarati. This video was circulated widely on social media. The over one-minute clip shows a man cautioning people against Rahul Gandhi who has bought three extravagant buildings in Italy with India’s money and gets paid hefty rent.

The claim was not only false but ludicrous. The buildings showcased in the video are a part of a city square—Piazza Castello—in Turin, Italy. The square-shaped landmark houses museums, theatres and palaces, including the Royal Palace of Turin built in the 16th century. Several of the architectural complexes are world heritage sites protected by UNESCO. AltNews’ fact-check can be read here.

  • False claim of PM Modi abusing at a rally.

“What kind of language is this Mr. PM? Does it beholds the Prime Minister of the country to use profanity and that too publicly? Shocking beyond belief!! Have some respect for the chair, if nothing else.”

The above message was tweeted by Gaurav Pandhi, along with a video which has been superimposed with the words “Modi said BC at a rally”. Pandhi is associated with the Congress Party. The video was shared widely not only on social media platforms but also on WhatsApp, with the narrative that the prime minister had used profane language.

The assertion that Prime Minister Narendra Modi uttered the word “bh******” at the rally, is false. PM Modi had used the words “thavan(i) chhe”, which he can be heard uttering the second time in the video clip, and which has been wrongly interpreted as “bh******”. “Thavan(i) chhe” roughly translates to “Will happen/going to happen.” The classic usage is “thavani chhe”, but Modi says “thavan chhe”, which is colloquial usage. Repeatedly playing the word “thavan(i) chhe”, as was done in the video clip, creates the illusion that Modi said “bh******”.

  • False claim of BJP candidate from Bengal dressed up as Hanuman.

TMC supporter Garga Chatterjee tweeted photographs of a man dressed as Hanuman and said that he was “Jagannath Sarkar, BJP MP candidate from Ranaghat” in West Bengal (archive). The claim was circulated widely on Facebook and Twitter.

The photographs viral on social media depicted the BJP’s recent rally in West Bengal’s Ranaghat constituency. Dilip Ghosh, president of the BJP WB unit, had shared the images on April 22 with the caption “Roadshow with Ranaghat Lok Sabha constituency candidate Jagannath Sarkar”. Ghosh had uploaded several photographs, including the ones where a man dressed as Hanuman can be seen seated atop a jeep. Sarkar was NOT dressed as Hanuman.

  • Misinformation about Congress leaders posing with the same woman.

A tweet by Renuka Jain, who is followed by Modi, has gained traction not only on Twitter but also on Facebook (archive). In her tweet, Jain claimed that the Congress party had used the same elderly woman for all their photoshoots. “Congress pays her 5000 Rs. per photoshoot,” read her tweet.

The claim is false. All four women might seem alike because of their old age and white hair. A closer look, however, reveals clear distinctions in physical features. Alt News juxtaposed photographs of the four women for a comparative view. The second woman was photographed with BJP’s K Surendran and the fourth with Shashi Tharoor. The third elderly woman is the same one who could be seen embracing Rahul Gandhi.

  • Haryana CM targets Rahul Gandhi via a clipped video.

On April 28, Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar addressed an election rally in Ratia in the state. During his speech, the CM spoke about a purported video of Rahul Gandhi which was “too difficult to even talk about”. Khattar alleged that the Congress president “insulted the honour of our mothers and sisters”. He cited a video where he claimed Gandhi said that women in Uttar Pradesh can give birth to one child a week or 52 children a year.

The video referred to by Khattar was mischievously clipped. A seven-year-old speech of Rahul Gandhi in UP’s Phulpur was lifted, clipped and circulated on social media. In the original speech, Rahul talks about the Janani Suraksha Yojna under the National Rural Health Mission, under which pregnant women get an incentive of Rs 1,400 for institutional delivery. In that context, the Congress president had claimed that according to an RTI response, women with the same name were getting incentives every week due to corruption in the scheme.

  • Congress IT cell head tweets photoshopped image drawing a parallel between PM Modi and Hitler. “What are your thoughts?” tweeted Divya Spandana, social media head of the Congress party, along with two photographs. One was of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, the other was of Modi.

The same image had been circulated by detractors of Modi in 2018 as well. It was debunked by Alt News. A reverse image search on Google revealed that Hitler’s image used in the post is photoshopped. In the original image, he is not holding the child’s ears but resting his hands on her shoulders. An article in The Sun published the original image which was apparently clicked to portray the Nazi leader as a “personal friend and guardian of the German youth”.

  • Bengal BJP doctors video to claim Mamata Banerjee asked people to vote for the BJP.

“The impact of MODI TSUNAMI – Mamata Banerjee appeals everyone to vote for BJP!”—the official Twitter handle of Bengal BJP declared in a tweet that the chief minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, appealed to voters to vote for the BJP in a rally. Accompanying the tweet was an 18-second video in which her words—“BJP shorkar ke vote diye”—were played in a loop. The English translation of the statement is “vote for BJP”.

It turns out that the Bengal BJP had tweeted a doctored video which was clipped and played in a loop to give a misleading impression. Banerjee addressed a rally in Khanakul, West Bengal, on April 23. While ending her speech, she asked the people to vote out the BJP, with a sarcastic tone to her words. Her words: “6 May aasche din, ekhane bhalo kore gonotontroye BJP Sarkar ke vote diye bhalo kore kobor din, bhalo kore kobor din, bhalo kore kobor din”, can be approximately translated as: “On May 6, cast your vote for the BJP government and give them a proper burial, give them a proper burial, give them a proper burial.” The part where she says “bhalo kore kobor din”, which literally translates to “put them in the grave”, was clipped out by the Bengal BJP. Instead, the part where she sarcastically says “vote for BJP” was retained and played in a loop.

  • AAP social media head tweets 2013 video to portray the Congress on shaky ground in Delhi.

People of Delhi have understood that @INCIndia and @SheilaDikshit are merely vote-cutters. If you dont believe it then watch this 24 second video. After today’s #AAPkaManifesto, the 2-3% people who would have voted for Congress will now not. (translation).

The above message was tweeted by Ankit Lal, the social media in-charge of AAP, along with a video clip showing former Delhi CM and senior Congress leader Sheila Dikshit. The tweet referred to the Congress party as a vote katua, incapable of garnering the popular mandate in Delhi for the Lok Sabha election of 2019.

The video which was posted by Lal on his Twitter account was misleading. It is not a recent news report. It is from November 2013. NDTV had reported the turnout at the Congress party’s rally in Ambedkar Nagar, ahead of the 2013 assembly election which took place in December that year. The INC was the biggest loser in the election, plunging from 43 seats to eight.

  • Photoshopped image of Priyanka Gandhi wearing a cross.

A photograph of Priyanka Gandhi wearing a cross around her neck was shared widely on social media. Several pro-BJP Facebook pages posted an image, in which two photographs of Priyanka Gandhi were juxtaposed. In one photograph, she is seen wearing a cross. It has been claimed that the picture was taken in Kerala. In the other image on the right, she is sporting a rudraksha necklace. This photo was claimed to be from Uttar Pradesh. The attempt was to highlight the supposed hypocrisy and skullduggery of Priyanka Gandhi.

The picture of her wearing a cross is photoshopped. AltNews had fact-checked the photograph and found that she was actually wearing a pendant, which was replaced with a cross by photoshoping. The original photograph was from a rally in UP in 2017.

  • Photoshopped image shows Rahul Gandhi and Mamata Banerjee with Pakistan PM and army chief.

An image of Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan interacting with the country’s army chief, Qamar Javed Bajwa, was circulated on social media. Congress leaders Shatrughan Sinha and Navjot Singh Sidhu, Mamata Banerjee and Rahul Gandhi can also be seen in the photograph, sitting in a corner. It was circulated with the caption “If you vote for Congress, you will be able to vote for Pakistan. Look at the picture, how are the slaves of Pakistan sitting in the corner.”

Alt News found that the original photo, in which no Indian leader is seen, was digitally altered. The image was photoshopped by Twitter user @Atheist_Krishna who had posted it on April 5 with the caption “Opposition reaches Pakistan to gather evidence for the death of terrorists in Balakot” —which suggests that he took a sarcastic jibe at the opposition leaders.

  • Photoshopped endorsement: Ranveer Singh and Deepika Padukone shown campaigning for BJP.

A photograph of movie stars Ranveer Singh and Deepika Padukone was posted on Facebook. It showed the two sporting saffron scarves on which “Vote for BJP N Modi” is printed. The text accompanying the image read: “Press the lotus button, become a part of the nation’s progress.”

As expected, the image was digitally manipulated. AltNews searched for the image on Google and found the real photograph, which was clicked on November 30, 2018. Singh and Padukone had visited the Siddhivinayak temple in Mumbai, where the picture was clicked. It was carried by several media publications.

  • Republic TV falsely portrays man praising PM Modi as a Congress MLA.

“Congress MLA, Anil Upadhyay also becomes a disciple/fan of Modi, lavishes praise on him.” The “Breaking News” headline, telecast on April 27 by Republic TV’s Hello Bharat programme, carried a video of a person praising Modi and saying that only the corrupt want him to lose. The anchors further explained what they called the “big news”, saying that not only the common citizens of the country but also Modi’s political opponents were full of praise for him. They introduced the person as Anil Upadhyay, a Congress MLA from Madhya Pradesh.

Republic TV had clearly misreported. AltNews found that there was no Congress MLA by the name of Anil Upadhyay. The person in the video was identified by The Quint as Mohan (Munna) Pandey. Several videos of Pandey have been shared by Twitter user Tanmay Shankar (@Shanktan). In all these videos, he is seen as making a very spirited and emotional case for supporting Modi. Speaking to The Quint, Shankar confirmed that the person is Mohan Pandey and known to him personally.

  • ABP News anchor defends Smriti Irani over degree row with falsehood.

In a debate broadcast by ABP News from Darbhanga in Bihar, the question of Smriti Irani’s degree once again came to the fore when a person from the audience raised a question over her questionable educational qualifications. In response, the ABP News anchor said that Irani has a Master of Arts (MA) degree. The relevant portion of the discussion can be seen at 38:16 minutes in the video. In response to a question raised by a member of the audience, ABP News anchor Rubika Liyaquat promptly responded, saying, “(She has done MA through correspondence, she has done MA, she has done MA—translation.”

This is not true, as Irani’s poll affidavit for 2019 clearly mentions that she had not completed her three-year degree course.

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