The ability to make out fake news from real could save the coming generations a huge amount of conflict and heartburn, says Vanita Kohli-Khandekar.
Recently, the ministry of information and broadcasting issued and then withdrew guidelines on fake news.
It was an ill-thought-out gambit but fake news remains a real danger. It is manufactured in factories full of techies whose only job is to revile, debase and smear some person, party or company.
Just discussing the damage it does to democracy or the violence it sparks doesn't help. The Indian news industry should be putting its heads together to tackle it.
That is where the United Kingdom creative industries' fight against online piracy offers two very critical lessons -- follow the money and educate consumers.
In 2014, Mike Weatherley, then an MP and Intellectual Property adviser to (then) Prime Minister David Cameron, published two discussion papers -- 'Follow the Money-Financial Options to Assist in the Battle Against Online IP piracy' and 'Search Engines and Piracy'.
Among other things these papers recommended making pirate sites unsearchable and unadvertisable by deranking them. Google implemented it globally in the same year.
In a search result if a notified pirate site came up, Google would push it down the ranks. This led, immediately, to a drop in reach of pirate sites by 50 per cent. And their revenues fell by 25 per cent.
Deranking has been talked about in the context of fake news too.
In November 2017 Google announced that it would derank Russia Today and Sputnik which were accused of spreading misinformation and propaganda by United States intelligence agencies.
Eric Schmidt, former CEO of the $110-billion Alphabet, Google's parent, had said he was not in favour of censorship but was using rankings, the basic service that Google offers, to tackle the problem. There is no data available on whether this happened and if it worked.
The more important question is, will it work in India?
It could help deal with sites that pop up for the money. Like the ones from Veles, Macedonia, which made anywhere between $2,000 and $2,500 a day in the run-up to the 2016 US presidential election by carrying fake news such as 'Bill Clinton is a murderer'.
These sites get millions of people to click on that headline and therefore get advertising from automated (and consequently blind) ad networks, also called programmatic networks.
But what about the propaganda workshops funded by political parties? If nothing, it will push them down to page nine or 10 of the search reducing their reach till the second and more important lever comes into play -- consumer and advertiser education.
Media literacy sounds rather academic but the ability to make out fake news from real could save the coming generations a huge amount of conflict and heartburn.
For example, there are many techniques that fact-check sites such as Alt News, Boom or SMHoaxSlayer suggest to identify fake news. One of them is, does a site offering news have a decent 'About us' section which tells you who owns it, runs it, how it is financed.
You could use simple googling too. A recent picture of a notice on a school board warning against drug-laced sweets being sold outside schools was being furiously forwarded and discussed across mothers' WhatsApp groups one day. A quick search revealed it as a 2017 notice from a UK school.
You could argue that this is easier for professional editors and journalists. Which is precisely why media literacy helps.
Instead of a random order maybe the government could nudge the Press Council of India, the News Broadcasters Association, top media schools and academics to create a media literacy programme.
It can become a part of school curriculum for younger people and a sustained ad campaign across television, print, online and radio for general news consumers.
A similar campaign targeted at advertisers raising red flags on brand safety and reputational hazards of being on sites carrying fake news or hate speech could be run in tandem.
India has tackled some really tough issues this way -- like raising the percentage of people voting in elections by making it a symbol of pride and status. If the news industry cannot get together to ensure that audiences stay with credible, fact-checked news, then it cannot blame anyone but itself for losing the same audience to fake news.