Free speech is being criminalised while hate speech is legitimised at an all-powerful level, even by men and women donning constitutional posts. Zubair’s work punctures this calculated agenda
One of the biggest news stories broken by the fact-checking media outlet Alt News came in 2017, when the platform showed that the Indian Home Ministry’s annual report used a photo of the floodlight-lit border between Spain and Morocco as the border between India and Pakistan.
This was an instance where misinformation — popularly known as 'fake news' — was propagated by the government. It bounced back again on social media, with accompanying posts attributing it to the ruling government and the prime minister.
By then, Alt News, founded by Pratik Sinha and Mohammed Zubair, had already begun busting disinformation — the deliberate use of fake news to harm people. Zubair exposed ‘Sulli Deals’, an app on which ‘auctions’ were staged involving over 100 Muslim women, using manipulated pictures of them without their consent. Yet, when he alerted the Delhi police, no action was taken.
When another app called 'Bulli Bai' surfaced, Zubair knew he had to take precautions. He stored evidence before calling out the app and alerting the police. As news spread to the mainstream, right-wing platforms tried to create a false narrative, to divert attention. Alt News worked with police for a week to uncover the truth.
Now famous on social media for fact-checking, Zubair had a childhood that was far from politics. He spent most of his free time between school and college on academics and sports. “As the eldest son, with the pressure to get a job and look after the family, studies were the priority,” he says. His remaining time was dedicated to cricket at the grounds near the TV tower at J C Nagar in Bengaluru, where he was popular among friends for his bowling.
When Zubair started a parody page on Facebook in 2014, there was no particular motive to counter ‘fake news’, he explains. In those early days, his page was limited to making fun of the sheer ridiculousness of false claims by right-wing leaders and followers.
By then, posts channelling hatred towards minority communities had begun to gain traction. Fact-checking one such post brought him in touch with journalist Pratik Sinha, whom Zubair credits for ‘mainstreaming’ him. The pair founded the fact-checking platform together. Their initiative has since helped Zubair to continue his work and swim against the flood of propaganda and hate.
The nature of his work has put him in the crosshairs of the ruling establishment. Earlier this year, Zubair was arrested on the charges of offending Hindus through satirical social media posts. The arrest was just the beginning. Then came the seizure of electronic devices, being paraded between different courts and about two weeks of judicial custody at the high-security Tihar jail.
The ‘offending’ social media posts included a satirical take on false information shared by leaders, such as Biplab Dev’s claim that the internet was available during the “time of Mahabharata” and other statements ascribing false historicity to support claims of the ancientness of Hinduism.
“Almost all of my social media posts are focused on checking factual inaccuracies. So, they had to go back four-five years to find the content that would help them target me,” Zubair says, with a smile.
A significant event that led to his arrest was the suspension of a BJP leader, whose communal statement about Muslims drew international condemnation. Zubair had called out the TV channel for allowing the statement on air. The techie-turned-journalist had, by then, become a threat to those peddling hate under the shadow of power.
Sukhnidh Kaur, a research fellow at Microsoft Research, notes that fact-checking has become synonymous with constant monitoring. As a result, fact-checkers expose themselves to a toxic media ecosystem, influential people, messages, articles and posts in order to counter dangerous narrative inconsistencies.
“Since falsehoods are the lifeblood of propaganda, maintaining a healthy information environment has become, in a sense, a form of political resistance. Zubair is one of the faces of this resistance. The values, labour, and processes required to sustain entire fact-checking organisations such as AltNews are fundamentally rooted in democratic ideals,” says Kaur.
Today, Zubair himself is a message more than the content he posts to fight disinformation and misinformation. Such a development may be disquieting, but that’s the intended outcome. “Many people, including reporters on the ground, have reached out to me or to the Alt News office expressing concern. Many fear criticising the government or the hatemongers on social media. Even those who continue to do it have reduced their work owing to fear of repression.
My arrest sent a clear message to those who speak truth to power: ‘if you make a small mistake or if we think that you made a small mistake, we will make you an example’,” Zubair said, adding immediately that the fight for truth has to continue.
And the fight is crucial, notes Teesta Setalvad, a journalist and activist who herself is not new to repression. “Free speech is being criminalised while hate speech is legitimised at an all-powerful level, even by men and women donning constitutional posts. Zubair’s work punctures this calculated agenda,” she adds.
As a result, there is an underlying sense of loneliness which Zubair acknowledges in an off-hand remark. Such a feeling is not uncommon among those singled out for questioning the establishment and facing the heavy hand of tyranny. But the last few years have shown that the weight of the hand increases on the shoulders of those carrying the identity of a minority community.
Zubair is deeply aware of the hanging cloud of repression. “I have decided to limit my content to checking facts. More often, I withhold my opinions if they are not vital because I know that it can be used against me,” the journalist says.
Such self-censorship not only threatens constitutional rights but bars the debate necessary for a healthy democracy. Teesta notes that the role of Alt News is crucial since it brings in a dimension of “critical thinking and analysis”, especially with relation to the distorted imagery and reporting rampant on electronic media channels, some digital portals and most specifically, on social media platforms.
Prateek Waghre, policy director at the Internet Freedom Foundation, notes that neither misinformation nor confirmation biases that propel it are new to the society. In a world where the sheer scale and speed of information are seeing exponential growth, there is hardly any room for one to step back and assess the situation.
“In a world dominated by real-time information and undercut by time and attention poverty, weaponisation of misinformation threatens democracy through delegitimising its systems and eroding the common grounds. However, criminalising misinformation is difficult as it comes with the risk of those in power using it to stifle freedom of expression. Zubair and others working to counter such narratives are providing a crucial service as established media organisations are forced to focus more on audience engagement rather than verification of facts,” he said.