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Alarming lessons from Facebook's push to stop fake news in India

Saritha Rai, Bloomberg News on

Published in Business News

BENGALURU, India -- The world's largest election has become something of a test case in how technology giants handle fake news after years of scandal. It's not working out so well.

India has as many as 900 million voters in an election that culminates this week, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ruling coalition headed for apparent victory. Particularly challenging for would-be fact-checkers, from Facebook Inc. to Google, is the country's 23 official languages. Facebook has hired contractors to verify content in 10 of those languages, but those staffers are spread thin and posts in more than a dozen other languages -- Sindhi, Odia and Kannada among them -- are completely unvetted.

Mishra has seen the scale of the challenge first-hand. The manager at Vishvas News, Facebook's largest Indian-language fact-checking contractor, spent two weeks recently talking with internet users in small cities. She found most people are so new to social media they have no clue about bogus content. They share stories indiscriminately, with stupefying speed. "Being the 'first' to share things in their circles gave them a rush," she says.

Facebook, Twitter Inc. and Google parent Alphabet Inc. are discovering the harsh reality that disinformation and hate speech are even more challenging in emerging markets than in places like the U.S. or Europe. A new category of users, recently digital, believe almost whatever they receive -- especially if it comes from family or friends. Hundreds of millions read in languages the American tech giants haven't even begun to monitor.

"Disinformation is spreading like wildfire in these parallel digital universes," said Bharat Gupta, chief executive officer of Jagran New Media, which runs Vishvas News. "It's a dark space that nobody talks about."

About 90% of internet users coming online today are non-English speakers, often with more trusting attitudes than experienced surfers. In one Hindi example, a phony Facebook post for job vacancies at the subway train company in the city of Jaipur asked those interested to send personal details. Within hours, about 20,000 had responded with names, emails and phone numbers.

 

Efforts to monitor native languages have gotten off to a slow start. Social networks, messaging apps and content aggregators have started drafting community guidelines, automated tools are being built, and in-house content moderation teams created. Facebook is the first to make a commercial commitment, getting a jump on foreign rivals. Still, Vishvas began fact-checking Hindi Facebook posts just last December, while contractors in Punjabi and Urdu barely began a month ago.

Local-language speakers aren't waiting to get online, of course. Hundreds of millions who live in remote Indian villages are now zooming along cyber highways thanks to cheap smartphones and rock-bottom wireless prices. Native language internet users are forecast to make up three quarters of the country's online users by 2021. And Hindi Internet users alone will outnumber English Internet users by that year.

Vishvas' office is in a glass fronted low-rise on a narrow street in a New Delhi suburb called Okhla. The fact-checking outfit is part of Jagran Prakashan Ltd., a publicly traded media company that publishes India's most-read newspaper, the Hindi language Dainik Jagran. Vishvas' operation occupies one corner of a bay on the second floor. Orange partitions divide the workspaces, and vivid balloons, cricket paraphernalia and other personal adornments offer a pop of color against the pale vastness of a space filled with digital content creators.

Vishvas has five Hindi fake-news busters, and one each in Punjabi and Urdu. It's a puny shield against the swamp of political misinformation, fraud and pornography. In this year's election, malicious political propaganda often comes from shadowy cyber-armies targeting the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, its main opponent Congress Party or the dozens of regional parties.

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