In 2017, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed in an official document that it had set up floodlights for hundreds of miles along the tense India-Pakistan border to help guard against terrorist infiltrators. To back the claim, it published a photo of a floodlit fence separating two desolate lands. Within 24 hours, that boast had turned into embarrassment. Pratik Sinha, an Ahmedabad-based engineer turned fake news slayer, had shown that the image was actually a fence separating Morocco from the North African Spanish enclave of Ceuta, with the light reflecting off a body of water — the Mediterranean Sea — in the background betraying its origins.
Sinha published the story on AltNews.in, a website with eponymous Facebook and Twitter pages that aims to bust propaganda and outright lies peddled by India’s major political parties and their armies of fanboys (and fangirls) on social media. His platform has focused predominantly on verifying provocative statements and outlandish promises from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). But he hasnt shied from taking on the principal opposition party, the Congress, when it has overstepped the line between fact an faction. Sinha, the son of a prominent human rights activist, is fact-checking and claim-busting these parties in a country where the internet and social media are exploding much faster than the concept of self-regulation, leaving people vulnerable to political leaders epecially as India votes for its next government in the 2019 general elections.
The rise of Alt News comes at a time when most mainstream media in India is seen as bowing down before the Modi government.
Motivated by the mainstream media’s toothless attack on the government’s alternative facts, Sinha teamed up in September 2016 with the administrator of Unofficial: Subramanian Swamy — a parody Facebook page of the Indian politician who belongs to the BJP — to brainstorm what would eventually become AltNews.in. “We created a rough document in which bullet point No. 1 was ‘bust fake news’ and bullet point No. 2 was ‘cover people’s struggles,’” Sinha tells OZY over the phone. And since February 2017, he’s been doing just that — busting the ruling BJP and Modi government’s bluster — for 14 hours a day. In the past year, Sinha has proven that a direct-benefit transfer scheme wasn’t started by Modi, that he wasn’t the first prime minister to ride on New Delhi’s metro rail system and that he doesn’t work 18 hours a day. Sinha’s investigations have also revealed that the prime minister follows “serial abusers, sexist bigots and rumor mongers” on Twitter. In other words, Sinha is taking Modi and his mighty social media machinery head on.
The rise of Alt News comes at a time when most mainstream media in India is seen as bowing down before the Modi government. Self-censorship is rampant and so are sycophantic TV interviews of the prime minister. Editors and reporters who are seen as criticizing the government or who ask difficult questions are either fired or muzzled. Last May, Amit Shah, president of the ruling BJP, told reporters at a press conference to “shut up” when they inquired about the violence in Jammu and Kashmir state.
“They [the mainstream media] have not been doing this [fact-checking] at all. They are extremely meek when it comes to fact-checking the government,” says Samar Halarnkar, editor of IndiaSpend.org, which also runs Factchecker.in. In his opinion, most of this fact-checking is being done by independent, alternative news media, and Alt News is the leader of that pack. But taking on the government is a perilous task, and, in March 2017, Sinha received an anonymous death threat. So far, the BJP seems content to ignore Sinha, leaving the dirty work to its army of right-wing trolls. “I have no thoughts on the man,” said Amit Malviya, head of the BJP information technology group, when contacted by OZY for comment.
Alt News has more than 97,000 followers on Twitter, 108,000 likes on Facebook and, Sinha claims, more than 10,000 subscribers on its WhatsApp number. In October 2017, Sinha registered it as a not-for-profit company and, the following month, raised money — he declined to give a figure — via crowdfunding. His modus operandi for fact-checking is simple: He uses publicly available tools like Google Image Search to check for fake or photoshopped photos, which he says “are the biggest menace.” Platforms like YouTube have indexed stills of videos on Google — another tool Sinha relies on to call out doctored videos. Time Filter, which allows users to search for images within a certain time frame, is helpful for checking if videos said to represent a particular event even existed when the event took place.
Born in Ahmedabad, Sinha trained as a software engineer and worked in the United States for three-and-a-half years before chucking his job in 2013 to return to India. In July of that year, Sinha started a blog, Truth of Gujarat, in response to the case of Ishrat Jahan, a teenage Muslim girl, and four others who’d been killed in an encounter in 2004 in which police claimed they were suspected terrorists. The BJP, along with sections of the mainstream media, launched a campaign to manage the image of its leaders who were named in a charge sheet filed by India’s Central Bureau of Investigation. It moved Sinha into action, and he has since been channeling his resources into exposing the power of government to manipulate the “news” and dupe the public into buying its version of the facts.
Sinha’s war against fake news is fueled in no small part by the legacy of his late father, Mukul Sinha, a human rights activist who co-founded Jan Sangharsh Manch, a civil rights group that represented victims of the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat. Those efforts made Mukul a bête noire of Narendra Modi — then the chief minister of the state. Since his father died in 2014, Pratik’s mother has taken the reins of the organization. “I’ve grown up with the struggles [of common people] and going to their protests,” Sinha says. “That’s where I get my politics from, and that’s been a significant factor in what I do today.”
With the general elections this spring, and a tenure marked by an underperforming economy and a lack of structural reforms, Modi had better watch out: What Sinha does today could impact all of his tomorrows.
(This article has been updated since it was originally published on March 11, 2018)
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