Busting fake news: The perils of police as fact-checker

Police fact-checks, while potentially helpful, cannot be taken as absolute fact since as government officials they are often under political pressure to push a certain line.

BySamrat X
Busting fake news: The perils of police as fact-checker
Shambhavi Thakur
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Within 48 hours of the Trinamool Congress’s famous victory in the recent elections in West Bengal on May 2, social media was suddenly awash with gory tales and videos of murder and rape allegedly being carried out by TMC henchmen against political rivals, mainly belonging to the Bharatiya Janata Party, which had finished a distant second.

The state has an unfortunate history of political violence going back several decades, in which, apart from targeting Congress and later Trinamool, different factions of the ruling Left Front had often killed one another. After the latest election results, there were indeed scattered clashes between supporters of political parties in which the BJP claimed nine of its supporters had been killed, the TMC claimed eight casualties, and the Left and Indian Secular Front claimed one casualty each. But the tales of large-scale violence, including rape, were found to be false even as verified handles on Twitter – including those of senior journalists – spread those rumours, with added communal twists. This was also amplified via television news.

Also Read : Violence, but not communal: BJP pushes misinformation campaign in Bengal

These enthusiastic and energetic efforts to create an impression that riots had started, as those spreading the rumours perhaps hoped they would, were marred by several errors.

In one instance, Abhro Banerjee, a journalist working for the India Today group in Delhi, found his photo being used as that of a victim of political violence in Sitalkuchi. He had to announce that he was alive. This was subsequently among the cases of fake news that the Kolkata police took up for investigation.

Since then, police forces in West Bengal have found that old videos of violent incidents from Bangladesh and Brazil are among those being circulated as “post-poll violence” in the state. The police has filed 34 FIRs in cases related to fake news, including one against actor Kangana Ranaut, and made 21 arrests.

The Bengal police is not alone in its efforts to combat the menace of fake news. Its compatriots in Delhi and Mumbai have also been active in this matter for sometime now. So have others in states run by political dispensations as varied as the Left in Kerala and Adityanath’s BJP in Uttar Pradesh. Smaller states have got in on the act too; the Meghalaya police is among those that has set up a cell to bust fake news.

The menace of fake news is undeniable and countries around the world have been grappling with it. Are the police, however, the right organisation to deal with the problem?

A senior officer from a central security organisation, who did not want to be identified, pointed out that eventually, it is the police whose job it is to investigate whether a crime has taken place or not. So, for instance, when rumours of rape and murder are being circulated, it is natural for the police to be the authoritative source on the matter.

The issue is, however, more complicated than that.

“Earlier also, journalists used to reach out to the police for statements,” said Pratik Sinha, founder and head of fact-checking site AltNews. This was part of the journalistic process, he said, but journalists would simultaneously look at other circumstances surrounding the issue. In journalism, he pointed out, “the police statement is not the start and end of the piece.”

When a young Dalit woman in Hathras in Uttar Pradesh was gangraped and subsequently died, the police repeatedly put out statements that journalists on the ground found to be false, Sinha said. “We still treat these fact-checks not as fact-checks but as statements from the police.”

Also Read : Revisiting Hathras: ‘Why wasn’t my sister taken seriously when she was alive?’

The problem, as Sinha sees it, is not that the police put out statements but that the statements are viewed as absolute fact. What the police are doing is an initial inquiry, which still needs an investigation, a chargesheet and a court hearing – but those nuances seem lost on practically everyone in the country.

However, Sinha is ambivalent about the growing practice of police forces engaging in fact-checking, especially when it comes to quashing rumours with the potential to disturb the peace. “I have seen it going both ways,” he said.

Which way it goes would naturally depend on the relevant expertise, for one thing. Much of the misinformation in India is in the form of images and videos, Sinha pointed out. “A robust digital forensics team is needed in every police department and that is sorely lacking.”

A second, arguably more serious, problem is that of intent. With police forces of all kinds, at central and state levels, acting as extensions of the governments in power, political bias invariably creeps in. Rather than being an honest effort at clarifying the facts, the police fact-check risks becoming an exercise in burying facts that the government of the day may find inconvenient.

It is one matter for a TV channel or newspaper to have a bias for or against a political party. It’s an entirely different matter for a police force or central government agency to show similar bias. News channels can’t cook up evidence in the way that police forces and government agencies can. Nor can they arrest people on the basis of such evidence. The alleged planting of documents in the computers of the Bhima Koregaon accused, which was reported by a US-based digital forensics firm, is a cautionary tale on the potential for abuse of powers by such forces. Technologies invariably proliferate despite barriers. Eventually we may have a situation where several police forces in the country have the ability to do something like that.

Apart from such obvious problems, there are also deeper issues in policing facts. In the case of breaking news, initial reports often say one thing while final reports say another. For instance, initial reports surrounding the death of a protesting farmer, Navreet Singh, in Delhi this January suggested that he had been shot. Later reports said he had died when his tractor overturned, although his family members stuck to their original version saying the tractor overturned after he was shot. Doctors examining his post-mortem report also found discrepancies.

However, cases were filed against senior journalists Rajdeep Sardesai and Mrinal Pandey and MP Shashi Tharoor, among others, for tweeting that the farmer had been shot. The official version became fact, with any questioning of this version becoming a crime. This strongly discouraged media reporting into the case that did anything other than parroting the official line.

Even greater difficulties arise in cases that aren’t related to news but to history. A lot of WhatsApp forwards and posts on social media in recent years have been about historical or mythical characters and incidents. For example, the Ram Janmabhoomi case is one that relates to mythology and history. Debates over India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru or Hindu Mahasabha icon VD Savarkar similarly relate to history. Are the police the best arbiters to decide which among controversial historical facts is the truth and which one is “fake news”?

History is hardly the only academic discipline that gets sucked into the debate. Over the past year, many police cases for fake news across India have related to Covid. The questions surrounding the virus, vaccines and treatments are medical and scientific matters. No doubt some of the rumours surrounding the issue are completely idiotic or lunatic, but neither idiocy nor lunacy is a crime. People are allowed to have stupid views, whether it is on the efficacy of cow urine or vaccines. If stupidity was made illegal, a very considerable proportion of India’s population would have to be put in jail.

The issue of policing fake news is thus a complicated one. On the one hand, there is the need to prevent swirling rumours from doing real damage, by leading to lynchings or rioting. On the other hand, the average police station in India is not exactly staffed by omniscient scientists, doctors, historians and moral philosophers. Even practitioners of the humble craft of journalism, which has to deal with every topic under the sun, have to acquire specialised skills that involve years of professional training. It has its own methods and best practices, although this is not apparent in the work of many noise channels.

Journalistic organisations and journalism research institutes around the world have been working for years on ways to deal with the pandemic of fake news. Police forces can benefit from their research and experience if they are going to be doing the Super Editor’s job.

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