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Debunking class

P Anima | Updated on March 22, 2019 Published on March 22, 2019

Right to question: Kannur collector Mir Mohammed Ali interacts with schoolchildren as part of the Satyameva Jayate awareness programme   -  SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Kannur schoolchildren are leading the fight against online fake news

As tempers frayed and emotions ran amok over the entry of pre-menopausal women to the Sabarimala temple in Kerala, Nisha Praveendas received a related WhatsApp message. She impulsively forwarded it to others, but soon realised the contents were untrue, and reached out to her contacts to set the record straight.

“I regretted forwarding the text. We often do not think of the consequences of spreading unverified messages,” says Nisha, a homemaker, on the phone from Kannur. She resolved to be careful in future and began by alerting her two sons to the dangers of mindless forwards. “The children spend a lot of time on the internet; I constantly remind them to be careful,” she says. Naturally, she was thrilled when her younger son, Siddharth, and his school team won the second prize in a quiz competition on fake news conducted by the Kannur district administration in January.

A Std XI student at Amrita Vidyalaya, Kannur, Siddharth recalls the awareness session his teacher Vidya Parammal had conducted for his class a year ago. The elaborate digital presentation was part of the district administration’s effort to combat fake news. Students learnt how to actively engage with social media messages, question their veracity and trace the source before deciding whether it was genuine. Siddharth soon noticed a change in the school WhatsApp group, which suddenly became restrained instead of choking with a barrage of forwards. “When someone posts a forward, they are questioned about the source,” Siddharth says.

Kannur, in north Kerala, sporadically hits the headlines for political violence. However, over the last year or so, the coastal district has become the pivot of a larger campaign against fake news. Led by collector Mir Mohammed Ali, it worked to evolve a comprehensive, one-of-a-kind strategy, including training sessions in over 200 schools. The collector intends to cover all schools in the district this year and expand the programme to colleges.

These efforts have caught the attention of international media, including Chinese and Japanese broadcast networks, and the BBC.

Ali had first sensed the danger in 2016, when rumours of child trafficking gripped the district. The police had then nipped it in the bud by circulating informative videos. Last year, however, rumours of child trafficking spread like wildfire on social media and led to lynchings elsewhere in the country.

The idea for the campaign struck Ali after he found that parents were not allowing their children to be vaccinated against measles-rubella, following widespread scaremongering on WhatsApp. The administration struggled to convince the parents that the vaccine was safe. Protesting parents were then asked to sign a refusal form and get it counter-signed by the collector. “Every evening after 5, I would be arguing with mothers. I had my talking points, they had theirs,” says Ali. If some changed their minds, others stuck to their stand. Ali simultaneously engaged with children and decided to launch the campaign against fake news. “I realised children act very reasonably when they are confronted with logic and evidence,” he adds.

Aimed at schoolchildren, the campaign is rooted in Constitutional principles, and the spirit of enquiry and scientific temper demanded of citizens. Called Satyameva Jayate, it urged them to actively counter fake news. “If fake news is being spread and you do nothing, tomorrow it could be about you,” he says.

A group of officials and volunteers put together the slide presentation on what constitutes fake news and the ways to counter it. Sugeeth T, a volunteer at Agents of Change, a civil society group that works closely with the administration, pulled out examples of fake news from the internet. “The picture of a lantern-lit Amritsar sky was so convincing that even celebrities endorsed it,” says the 27-year-old engineering graduate. All it took was a reverse image search to prove it was an expert Photoshop job. Methods to verify news ranged from simple Google and reverse image searches to crosschecking the message on home sites.

In the first round, 150 teachers from government and private schools were trained. Teachers diligently carried the message to students, shared photographs and videos from the classroom with the collector and translated the presentation into Malayalam, wherever needed. TV Balakrishnan, who teaches at the Government Higher Secondary School in Koyyam, says: “Students extensively use social media, and tend to share and forward mindlessly. The classes taught them that legal action can be taken against those who forward harmful material.”

Presented in simple language, aided by visuals and sprinkled with examples of fake news, including those related to the recent Nipah virus scare in Kerala, the campaign connected easily with the children. Parammal of Amrita Vidyalaya recalls how the session conducted by the collector for teachers had helped even adults understand terms such as clickbait and filter bubble, which refer to the online strategies commonly used to misguide people.

In its latest avatar, Satyameva Jayate 2.0 has over 60 slides and incorporates new exercises to help students identify fake news. “We have trained 200 teachers and reached over 80,000 students,” says Ali. The campaign also seeks to demystify the internet. “When we make so many important life decisions online — from shopping, to making friends and getting married, shouldn’t we be alert on how it works?” he asks.

P Anima

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Published on March 22, 2019
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