Will it thwart the thriving fake news industry?

Arshad Shaikh looks at the latest efforts by Big Tech, academics, and news organisations to tame the monster of fake news and online misinformation. Social scientists have come up with a concept of the pre-emptive debunking of misinformation called ‘pre-bunking’ to protect people from the dangers of being manipulated by conspiracy theories, propaganda, emotionally manipulative language, incoherence, false dichotomies, scapegoating, and ad hominem attacks (that appeal to feelings and prejudices rather than intellect and reasoning). This is a welcome move and is the need of the hour; especially in our country where we have an entire industry with thousands of full-time employees dedicatedly working towards building a false narrative against a particular religious community for reaping political dividends.

The internet has thrown up as many challenges for those who play an important role in its growth and governance. Online misinformation (fake news), online toxicity (trolling, stalking and abuse), censorship (denial of freedom of speech), online violent extremism and radicalisation are some of the issues identified by a new unit of Google called Jigsaw. The new division plans to confront these challenges with cutting-edge research and experimental technology.

Jigsaw recently launched a pilot experiment to counter the misinformation about Ukrainian refugees in Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. As refugees from Ukraine landed in these countries, there was a surge in online content about how Ukrainians have started taking jobs, brought crime and devoured subsidies. The aim was to create friction and hatred against Ukrainians by generating an anti-refugee narrative to exacerbate the Ukraine crisis.

Jigsaw’s campaign is based on a “pre-bunking” ad campaign and it will run on popular social media platforms like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and TikTok. Traditional tools like fact-checking are not utilised by people if they do not trust the website deploying it.

Moreover, their activity is akin to medicine that acts to cure a disease after infection, whereas what is required is a vaccine that boosts immunity for prevention against a virus or disease. For example, in India, despite some wonderful work by fact-checking portals such as Alt News, and factchecker, the online propaganda to create hatred against a particular religious minority continues to grow and flourish.

In contrast, the new tools developed by Google’s Jigsaw along with research teams from Cambridge and Bristol Universities in the UK as well as the University of Western Australia focus on teaching people to recognise and make them more resilient against misinformation. It is expected that this initiative will significantly reduce the spread of fake information.


Experts recommend replacing the term fake news with false information when it comes to the spread of misinformation about health, the environment and economics. The term “fake news” should be confined to political news stories. Online social media news feeds throw up false information in the form of news stories or hoaxes to purposely deceive and cheat readers.

Specialists studying the phenomenon say false news consists of three elements: mistrust, misinformation and manipulation. The upsurge in fake news can be traced to the rise of social media and cross-platform messaging services such as WhatsApp. This allowed virtually anybody with miniscule resources to generate and deliver news on a scale that even surpassed the reach of mass media.

Earlier, newsgathering and delivery was the sole preserve of journalists and news organisations and newspapers. The exponential growth of social media and internet access on mobile phones made news making a household industry.

In India, this development was leveraged most by right-wing groups who formed dedicated IT Cells deploying thousands of volunteers and full-time workers. They produced and disseminated false information and fake news about a particular religious community with a full-time army of trolls and stalkers whose only job was to spread fear, hate, venom and abuse on the net. This phenomenon is described by Ravish Kumar in the preface to the book India Misinformed.

Ravish says: “Fake news has resulted in people getting murdered. Using fake news, the ‘enemy’ is marked on the basis of community. Fake news was spread so that the feeling of insecurity vis-à-vis this enemy constantly rises. Fake news weaponised these political supporters. The result was that people began to be lynched on the streets.”


Fact-checking false information and fake news consists of evaluating the content for the source of the story. Is the source a credible organisation or just a lone individual; or some unknown name feigning as a mainstream news portal or credible website.

Next, the antecedents of the account or people sharing the information should be checked. If their profile appears “shady” and “jingoistic”, there is a strong possibility that the information being shared is fake or with malafide intentions.

Another step in the cross-examination of fake news is to look beyond the headline. Usually, fake news peddlers try to whip up passions by posting a sensational or provocative headline. However, the inside story is quite routine and run of the mill if analysed in an objective manner.

One should also check whether mainstream news outlets are reporting the same story or is it just this particular unknown source.

One must ascertain if the story is a parody or is meant to denigrate someone through satire and ridicule. Altered news stories with respect to dates and place of origin are very common techniques deployed for spreading falsehood.


Jigsaw collaborated with researchers at the University of Cambridge to study “pre-bunking”, a technique that imparts critical thinking skills to help people understand that they are being targeted with misinformation. Jigsaw and Cambridge performed pre-bunking exercises across six rounds on 6,464 participants.  In five of those six rounds, the participants were shown either an educational clip or a neutral video. Later they were shown fake social media posts that deployed manipulative techniques to beguile the viewers into believing something patently false.

The sixth round was conducted on a larger pool of participants of around 22,632 YouTube viewers, who were shown pre-bunking videos in the form of pre-roll ads. By watching these pre-bunking videos, the participants were trained at recognising conspiracy theories, propaganda, emotionally manipulative language, incoherence, false dichotomies (comparisons), scapegoating (projecting blame and responsibility on others), and ad hominem attacks (that appeal to feelings and prejudices rather than intellect and reasoning).

They were shown examples to bolster their ability to discern between correct information and content that is based on lies and falsehood. The viewers were then asked about the manipulation techniques they experienced.

The researchers on this pre-bunking experiment concluded that watching these inoculation videos significantly enhanced the viewers’ ability to discern fake information and manipulation deployment. If pre-bunking shows promising results, it would soon be rolled out globally to counter myths and fake information about other issues and divisive topics.

More than anywhere in the world, pre-bunking is required in India. However, pre-bunking may not work in our country if the infamous IT Cell hits back by creating false information about Jigsaw about how it is an international conspiracy to defame India and run by people who do not like to see a new and resurgent India.

Will Jigsaw take on India’s IT Cell to counter false information? It will require a lot of courage from Google’s top management to do so. If they back out, Jigsaw will be accused of being a “one-trick pony”.

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