These Kerala schools have declared war on fake news

by Elton Gomes

In a bid to put an end to the menace of fake news, schools in Kerala have now begun teaching students to be wary of everything they see and read on the internet.

Officials in the coastal district of Kannur have started conducting ‘Fake News Classes’ in English and Malayalam in an attempt to help children in identifying real stories from fake ones. Each class lasts up to 40 minutes, and these classes are being taught in 150 out of 600 government schools in Kannur.

The classes are the first of its kind in India, and use a combination of words, images, videos, simple classroom lectures, and skits on the dangers of forwarding WhatsApp messages mindlessly. The BBC calls this a “war on disinformation” wherein children are the foot soldiers.

During the classes, students are shown slides and given lectures on how to identify fake WhatsApp messages. One of the slides at Amritha Vidyalayam states, “Fake news is completely false information, photos or videos, intentionally created and spread, to confuse the public, spread mass panic, provoke violence and get attention”. Teachers constantly urge students to “question and cross check what you receive on WhatsApp. Always.” Students are also told to crosscheck messages that give out warnings about earthquakes or other natural disasters.

In 2017, parents of more than 2.4 lakh children in Kannur refused to get their child vaccinated after the spread of a fake message. The fake message claimed that vaccines were harmful to kids. This compelled the administration to come up with ways to educate people about the menace of fake news.

Kannur district collector starts initiative to curb fake news

Mir Mohammed Ali, Kannur’s district collector, has started an initiative called Satyamev Jayate. This initiative aims at educating school children about what constitutes fake news, how it can be dangerous, and what action be taken to curb the spread of fake news.

The initiative will attempt to inculcate the spirit of Article 51 (A) (h) of the Constitution of India, which urges citizens “to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform,” Ali told the Indian Express.

“It is basically a training program for students to inculcate certain characteristics in them, to impart certain values in them. We want to encourage them to be more sceptic about the kind of information which is available on the internet and how to differentiate between what is true, what is false,” Ali told the Logical Indian in an interview.

Ali himself is quite active on social media and is a member of over 80 WhatsApp groups. He compiled the lessons for the fake news classes in English and Malayalam, and then finalised on the laws in place to punish offenders. “We decided to go teach the children because many of their parents appeared to believe everything they received on the phone was sacrosanct and the truth,” Ali said, the BBC reported. “I believe that if we can infuse a spirit of enquiry in our children, we can win this battle against fake news.”

What is India doing to curb fake news?

Bal Krishn Birla, a tech entrepreneur, and Mohammed Shammas, a software engineer, launched Check4Spam, with intentions to curing the fake news epidemic. With a team of 15 volunteers currently, Birla and Shammas fact-check false stories of all kinds. The team will choose a typical news story, research the facts online, and then use tools like reverse image search to verify whether photos or videos included in the story are from the region or time that they claim to.

Under immense pressure from the Indian government, WhatsApp said it was working with its partners in India to design a digital literacy programme for educating users on spotting false news. Sources claimed that WhatsApp is collaborating with seven other organisations in India to deliberate how to build an education programme that can effectively tackle misinformation and fake news. A spokesperson from the company said, “We are now working with experts in India to help grow our digital literacy efforts that will educate people about fake news and how to stay safe on WhatsApp,” as per a PTI report.

The problem with online platforms

An opinion piece in the Hindu claims that online platforms have scope for wrongdoing as they do not have binding rules, and they have the ability to maintain secrecy of owners and editors like in the case of fake news websites. In the absence of such information, there exists a lack of credibility of the information hosted on the respective platforms. The article claims that India could have some basic regulation for online media portals in an attempt to put an end to fake news and misinformation.

Elton Gomes is a staff writer at Qrius

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