Harnessing media literacy to navigate social media echo chambers in India
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Harnessing media literacy to navigate social media echo chambers in India

Kanchan K. Malik and Vamsi Krishna Pothuru

Several initiatives in India are endeavouring to integrate media literacy into formal education curricula and promote it through community initiatives. These initiatives aim to develop skills and expertise among citizens/netizens of India to enable them to critically navigate the digital media landscape. This is being looked upon as a step toward countering echo chambers, combatting fake news, debunking misinformation, and contributing to a more tolerant, well-informed, and inclusive society in the country.

Echo chambers are groups or platforms where individuals are exposed to information and views that align with their existing belief systems, reinforcing and amplifying their prevailing ideologies while rejecting or disregarding contradictory viewpoints.

As in several countries worldwide, in India, there are echo chambers facilitated by social media and online communities that curate content utilising algorithms on users’ preferences. Such sites tend to create filter bubbles that perpetuate political polarisation, dominant religious narratives, nationalistic jingoism, caste-based prejudices, linguistic biases, or other misguided upheavals. Even though everyone may not participate in echo chambers and may seek alternative perspectives to engage in constructive dialogue, the spread of misinformation in such platforms is rampant enough to cause what is recognised in many parts of the globe as an information epidemic (infodemic) phenomenon.

A notable example of political echo chambers in India is the rise of online groups with strongly biased ideologies prone to quick and easy stereotyping, reducing their identities to either “liberals” and “woke libtards” or “right wings” and “fascists”. In India, the predictable labelling for the former is “urban Naxals” and “anti-nationals”; for the latter, it is “bhakts” and “sanghis”. The term “bhakts” and “sanghis” are terms regularly associated with Hindu nationalism or Hindutva in India and are often used to refer to the vehement supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).1

On social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook, numerous pages have emerged that feature a strong pro-government bias and tend to dismiss or vilify dissenting voices and opposing viewpoints of the liberals and vice versa. Echo chambers exist across the political spectrum in India, and supporters of other political parties have also developed their own biased, tailored media structures to reinforce their respective ideologies. According to a BBC report titled “Duty, Identity and Credibility: Fake News and Ordinary Citizen in India”, there is a stark political polarisation among Twitter users in India, with conservative and left ideological groups at opposite ends of the map. Polarisation results in echo chambers and epistemic bubbles, where fake news thrives undying and reinforces biases and prejudices.

The social media echo chambers in India are based not only on political affiliations and religious beliefs but also on regional identities and several other factors. The Kashmir conflict, for example, has engendered many echo chambers that advocate for the independence of Kashmir from India. These attract individuals who may fanatically identify Kashmir’s historical, cultural, and political distinctiveness and assert the right to self-determination and aspirations for political autonomy. The discrimination based on the caste system in India has led to online social forums that raise awareness about Dalits (treated as “untouchables” in the past), challenge caste-based hierarchies and prejudices, and seek to advocate for social justice and equality for oppressed caste groups.

While the professed purpose of such platforms is societal reform and empowerment of the marginalised, as they cater specifically to a particular section, it could inadvertently generate an echo chamber effect and perpetuate identity-based divisions that hinder integration with the larger social fabric of the country.

Online forums around shared religious beliefs, cultural practices, ideologies, interests, and socio-political concerns can foster a sense of community, allowing individuals to connect with others with a shared identity and similar lived experiences. However, when they become confined and closed to conflicting views, dismiss a wide range of ideas, or restrain engagement with diverse social and political issues, they convert to echo chambers (also referred to as filter or epistemic bubbles). All echo chambers have the unique quality to polarise, reject dialogue, and drown out alternative perspectives that compel members to hold conservative and orthodox ideologies and affiliations.

The interplay between fake news and echo chambers

Echo chambers spawn in India through multiple platforms such as social media, internet forums, websites, and online discussion boards. But, the messaging apps such as WhatsApp are the clear winners because of their private and closed environment, the chat and forward feature, and the admin’s authority to selectively add or remove participants from groups.

There are several offline methods also that feed echo chambers. Partisan media organisations, television channels, newspapers, and radio stations associated with distinctive political or ideological leanings promote echo chambers through biased reporting or selective coverage. Echo chambers fuelled by misinformation, inflammatory content, conspiracy theories, false narratives, hate speech, and divisive perspectives have not only led to political polarisation but also to incidents of violence in India.

The combination of echo chambers and fake news has been a fertile ground for communal tensions, violent clashes, and social unrest in the global south. Social media platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook, and Twitter have also become breeding grounds for echo chambers in India. Fake news thrives in these echo chambers and flourishes unchecked by boosting the confirmation bias of members through content that aligns with their preconceived notions, ideological or cultural beliefs, and worldview. During elections, especially, misinformation that revolves around political ideologies and religion has the potential to influence voting behaviour and undermine the democratic process.

In these echo chambers, false stories, doctored images, and misleading videos are circulated to advance biased agendas and target vulnerable members by manipulating sentiments and inciting hatred. The echo chambers are amenable to disinformation campaigns often deployed to manipulate public opinion, discredit opponents, or create interfaith disharmony in India.

India grapples with the challenge of echo chambers

The communal violence that erupted in February 2020 in India’s capital, Delhi, between the Anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and pro-CAA protestors, which resulted in significant loss of life and property, was influenced, in part, by social media echo chambers formed around political affiliations and religious divides. During the COVID-19 pandemic, online echo chambers spread misinformation and conspiracy theories related to the virus and its treatments. False assertions about unscientific remedies and vaccine side effects circulated through internet forums resulted in confusion, unsafe practices, and vaccine hesitancy that undermined public health efforts. Fake news also turned communal in certain parts of the country, where minority communities were targeted based on misinformation, attributing them to be virus carriers.

India has witnessed several incidents of mob lynching triggered by false rumours and videos circulated on platforms that led to the targeting of migrant workers and brutal attacks on innocent nomadic communities and travelling through villages on suspicions of child kidnapping, organ harvesting and cow smuggling. According to data from IndiaSpend, more than 33 cases of murder and over 99 cases of attacks were triggered by rumours of child abduction alone between 2017-18.2 Similarly, when the process for updating the NRC (National Register of Citizens) was initiated in the north eastern state of Assam, false rumours about mass deportations, loss of citizenship, and discrimination created panic and anxiety among marginalised communities leading to unrest within the state.

During the farmers’ protests of 2021 in the north Indian states of Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh, misinformation was circulated using social media echo chambers. According to the study by BoomLive,3 a fact-checking initiative in India, around 57% of the fake news around farmers’ protests was to demonise protesting farmers across political, nationalistic, and religious identities. There was also a misrepresentation of the nature of the farm bills and divisive narratives that hindered constructive dialogue between stakeholders. A farmer leader went on record to say that the children of the farmers should teach their protesting parents how to use social media so that they can post true information to counter fake news.4

Media literacy in India: From echo chambers to critical thinking

By equipping individuals with critical thinking skills, promoting information verification, encouraging diverse media consumption, and cultivating empathy, media literacy education can effectively address the issue of echo chambers. Media literacy is emerging as a powerful tool to mitigate the impact of social media filter bubbles by promoting critical thinking that makes media consumers question the credibility of the information they encounter. It enables them to evaluate media content and identify propaganda or misinformation. Media literacy emphasises the importance of verifying information before accepting it and seeking multiple sources of information ahead of forming opinions or sharing content.

By urging diversity of media content intake, including those with differing perspectives or ideologies, media literacy helps counter the tendency to rely solely on echo chambers and broadens the understanding of complex issues. Media literacy empowers citizens to recognise biases and manipulation tactics media outlets employ. Additionally, it encourages individuals to become active media producers to create ethical content that promotes dialogue, plurality, empathy, and respect for diverse viewpoints.

Several non-governmental organisations (NGOs), media houses, and academic institutions in India actively undertake research, advocacy, and capacity-building related to media literacy, digital citizenship and rights, and fact-checking ecosystems. These initiatives organise workshops, training programmes, and awareness campaigns and develop educational resources to enhance media literacy skills, support critical media analysis, and endorse ethical journalism among divergent demographic segments of social media users and other citizens. Brief profiles follow of some of the organisations that run grassroots initiatives in collaboration with schools, colleges, community centres, and other stakeholders to encourage responsible media consumption and engagement to combat echo chambers.

Internet Saathi: Internet Saathi was launched by the Tata Trusts in 2016 in collaboration with Google to promote digital literacy among rural communities through rural women. This programme initially creates a cadre of digitally trained rural women called ‘saathis’ (friends or partners) in villages. The saathis train other women from the community, eventually building a network of trainers who impart digital literacy among the rural communities. Internet Saathi has a network of 60,000 saathis, who have imparted digital literacy to 20 million women across 200,000 villages in India. The saathis also help spread critical information about weather and natural disasters among villagers.5

Teen Fact-checking Network: The Teen Fact-Checking Network (TFCN) is project of MediaWise in partnership with the Boom Live, an Indian fact-checking website, to train teenagers in fact-checking. TFCN trains middle and high school children in identifying misinformation, research, digital verification, video production and writing fact checks. TFCN runs in English and Hindi and trains teenagers between 13 to 19 years.6

Sach ke Saathi: Vishwas News, a fact-checking initiative of Jagran News Media, rolled out a Sach ke Saathi (Companions of Truth) to empower the digitally vulnerable to identify and verify information online by conducting on-ground training workshops.7

FactShala: FactShala, a media literacy initiative by InterNews in collaboration with Google, trains communities in rural India. It employs a multi-stakeholder approach by collaborating with fact-checkers, journalists, and community radio stations to empower rural communities with media literacy and critical information skills.8

DEF: Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF) has recently developed a grassroots project to create rural hyper-local fact-checking networks with the participation of community radio stations to fight fake news in villages. This programme produced tools such as a WhatsApp tip line for community radio stations to receive potential misinformation reported by users.

Birdwatch: This is a pilot initiative by Twitter in the USA, which allows users to label potentially misleading tweets. An organic discourse by a pool of informed social media users on a particular piece of information can lead to the flagging of potential misinformation.

Verify Kiya Kya: WebQoof, a fact-checking initiative of Quint media house, rolled out Verify Kiya Kya, which offers video courses about fake news and fact-checking on their official YouTube channel.

Sathyameva Jayathe: The Kerala state government launched Sathyameva Jayathe to teach digital media literacy in schools. So far, this programme has trained 20 lakh students in the fundamentals of identifying and verifying misinformation on social media.9

Google News Initiative India Training Network: The Google News Initiative India Training Network started in 2018 with the collaboration of Google, DataLEADS, and Internews aims to support fact-checkers, media educators and journalists in addressing misinformation problems in India. So far, the Google News Initiative has trained 35,000 people across ten languages. This training network made a significant contribution to the fact-checking ecosystem in India.

Video Volunteers: Video Volunteers has been undertaking video journalism projects since 2003 with a mission to empower the world’s poorest citizens with a voice to address poverty, inequality and injustice. By amplifying voices that are often unheard, their Community Video Units (CVUs) create platforms for marginalised communities to share their own stories, initiate dialogues, encourage bridging divides, and take action on local issues. Video Volunteers provides media literacy training to community members, enabling them to use media tools effectively to share their perspectives and build their communities into places where they would like to live.10

Conclusion

Challenging the dominance and harmful effects of echo chambers and misinformation necessitates collective efforts that promote fact-checking, responsible platform guidelines and fostering critical thinking among citizens through media literacy in India. By incorporating media literacy into formal education curricula, forging partnerships for harnessing media literacy, and implementing grassroots initiatives, there are numerous endeavours in India seeking to break down echo chambers, foster an informed citizenry, and build a more inclusive society.

To realise the full potential of media literacy, collaboration among educational institutions, research and policy think tanks, digital advocacy outfits, media houses, NGOs, community organisations, and technology companies are crucial. There is a need to focus on the intersection of technology, policy, and society and concerted efforts across sectors to integrate media literacy into formal education, public discourses, and community communication. Promoting dialogue, values, and citizen empowerment to foster a more diverse culture foregrounds the importance of connective partnerships and shared knowledge creation and dissemination in the digital age.

All ventures to harness media literacy can benefit by forging a “community of practice” where stakeholders can pool their resources and expertise to reach a wider audience, create more sustainable media literacy strategies, promulgate comprehensive policies, and develop effective tools that counter the echo chamber effect and mitigate its negative consequences. By forging a community of practice around media literacy and a participatory approach to debunking misinformation, India can take significant strides towards combating echo chambers and nurturing a more pluralistic and democratic society.

Notes

1. https://theprint.in/pageturner/excerpt/bhakts-or-liberals-friendship-changed-in-modis-india-tech-will-make-it-worse-for-genz/585570/

2. https://www.indiaspend.com/child-lifting-rumours-33-killed-in-69-mob-attacks-since-jan-2017-before-that-only-1-attack-in-2012-2012/

3. https://www.boomlive.in/fact-file/boom-study-farmers-protest-rihanna-adani-ambani-fake-news-12139

4. https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/nation/protesting-farmers-to-use-social-media-to-counter-fake-news-213669

5. https://www.tatatrusts.org/our-work/digital-transformation/digital-literacy/internet-saathi

6. https://tfcnboomlive.in/

7. https://www.vishvasnews.com/english/fact-check-media-literacy-drive-english/

8. https://internews.org/story/person-person-internews-factshala-program-combats-misinformation/

9. https://frontline.thehindu.com/news/sathyameva-jayathe-kerala-initiative-aims-to-educate-students-in-spotting-fake-news/article66056748.ece

10. https://issuu.com/videovolunteers/docs/manifesto_for_media_literacy_vivo

Kanchan K. Malik is Professor, Department of Communication, SN School of Arts & Communication, University of Hyderabad, Hyderabad, India.

Vamsi Krishna Pothuru is a PhD Scholar, Department of Communication, SN School of Arts & Communication, University of Hyderabad, Hyderabad, India.

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