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Combatting Deadly Disinformation in India

In recent years, incidents of mob violence across India have been attributed to fake, inflammatory messages on social media. More recently, phony cures, doctored images, and misleading videos have spread online, undercutting efforts to control COVID-19. As India struggles with this digital menace, millions of people are logging onto the Internet for the first time. Hundreds of millions of Indians will come online in the next few years. A new initiative seeks to prepare these new users for this treacherous terrain by applying the Stanford History Education Group’s Civic Online Reasoning (COR) research to the Indian context. Launched by Internews with support from and in collaboration with DataLeads, FactShala leads workshops in small cities and rural areas across India that teach strategies for sorting fact from fiction online. “To have our work adapted for the Indian context is a huge opportunity for us,” said Sam Wineburg, the Margaret Jacks Professor of Education at Stanford.

To design a media literacy curriculum that addresses the needs of Indian Internet users, FactShala conducted a user study in consultation with the Stanford History Education Group. Based on the Stanford History Education Group’s assessments of Civic Online Reasoning, the Factshala team developed tasks that asked participants to evaluate a variety of the most common types of online sources. In total, they collected 1,955 responses from 391 respondents who hailed from over 90 cities and 25 villages in 23 states in India. Responses were scored using a 3-level rubric.

Across demographic groups, participants had difficulty evaluating the credibility of online sources. Overwhelmingly, participants tended to accept sources at face value. They didn’t consider who created them or for what purpose. Consequently, they were often misled. One task asked participants to judge the credibility of a social media message purporting to show a screen grab from a popular television channel. The text on screen claimed that the World Health Organization (WHO) had endorsed an herbal remedy as an effective treatment of COVID-19. In fact, this widely shared image had been manipulated. Only 15% of respondents correctly questioned the post’s authenticity and suggested checking other sources to confirm this claim. “The FactShala user study provides a timely portrait of how people across India evaluate online information,” noted Joel Breakstone, director of the Stanford History Education Group. The study’s results mirror similar findings from the Stanford History Education Group’s research in the United States.

FactShala and the Stanford History Education Group analyzed the user study results to identify areas of focus for a new media literacy curriculum. Working with fact checkers, journalists, educators, researchers, and the Stanford History Education Group, FactShala developed lesson plans that are now being used with first-time Internet users across India. In 2020, FactShala prepared 253 trainers to use the curriculum and these trainers organized over 370 trainings across India. Workshop participants included women’s self-help groups, childcare providers, community reporters, medical professionals, farmers, refugees, LGBT community members, pensioners, housewives, environmental activists, tea garden workers, religious leaders, rural school teachers, college instructors, and college students. Trainers led in-person and online workshops in more than 10 languages. Sixty three community radio stations also collaborated with FactShala on the development of programs based on the curriculum. These varied approaches provided 18,000 people with potentially life-saving instruction in how to find trustworthy information online.

Banner photo: FactShala trainer Arpna Chandail teaches media literacy to citizens in a rural area of India. From Internews.