We Had A Chance To Conduct An Interview With Kalim Ahmed, Researcher, Digital Investigator, And Former Correspondent At Alt News

Unraveling the Truth: Exclusive Interview with Kalim Ahmed, Renowned Digital Investigator and Former Alt News Correspondent

Kalim Ahmed

1. With 2024 being the 'year of the election' worldwide, we have some particularly significant elections coming up in Asia. Tell me a bit about your research regarding disinformation in India.

In India – and also Bangladesh and Pakistan – it is apparent today that much of the disinformation is domestically produced. It tends to rely not solely on textual content but rather on a blend of visual elements accompanied by a message designed to evoke emotions, transcending language barriers and literacy levels within the target audience.

In India, YouTube is playing more and more of a significant role, owing to the widespread adoption of mobile internet and the prevalence of millions of Android devices in the market. Given that many of these devices require a Google account for initial setup, logging into your Google account on an Android device will typically grant access to the pre-installed YouTube app without requiring a separate sign-in, thus offering a convenient and seamless user experience but also opening the market for bad-faith actors. 

2. How have the authorities in India been responding?

Last year, the Indian Government unveiled amendments to the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021. These amendments propose the establishment of a fact-checking body tasked with overseeing platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, compelling them to adhere to directives and remove content flagged by the fact-checking committee. Additionally, a 14-member Misinformation Combat Alliance (MCA) has proposed to act as a self-regulating entity, aligning with the IT Rules, 2021, to identify and flag misinformation circulating online. I cannot speak to the efficacy of the alliance at this stage.

Nevertheless, to state the obvious, it's extremely concerning that the government can designate a body as the ultimate authority on truth. Consider the case of the PIB fact-check, which purportedly debunks misinformation regarding government policies and schemes. They lack transparency in their methodology, including how they assess whether information warrants fact-checking and the process of conducting the fact-check itself. These are fundamental concerns. 

This issue extends far beyond India; an increasing number of governments worldwide are enacting legislation to combat the spread of "fake news." However, these laws are often loosely defined and prone to abuse, as highlighted by data from the Committee to Protect Journalists. Out of the 363 journalists jailed globally in 2022, 39 were imprisoned on charges related to "fake news" or violations of disinformation policies. Frankly, disinformation is increasingly being used as a pretext to suppress dissent.

3. Is this a home-grown issue? Or do we also see the role of state actors?

Certainly, this is a problem deeply rooted within our own borders. The political parties aligned with the ruling government in these regions are significant producers of domestic disinformation, necessitating a concentrated effort to address the issue at home. As a result of this, the focus of my research is predominantly directed towards addressing this internal challenge.

Understandably, safeguarding democracy and societal well-being take precedence—it's about protecting what matters most to us. However, this singular focus has its drawbacks. With all resources channeled into combating domestic disinformation, there's limited capacity to investigate the potential involvement of foreign state actors. In essence, the lack of resources prohibits thorough exploration into whether external parties play a role in disinformation campaigns.

4. What about the social media companies? Surely they have a responsibility to police disinformation?

They bear a responsibility, yet they've found a way to evade it. Consider Meta platforms as an example; they've established partnerships with fact-checkers worldwide, seemingly to absolve themselves from the burden of determining truth from falsehood.

However, is fact-checking alone enough to combat disinformation? What about the lack of transparency surrounding political ads on Meta platforms, with no disclosure of their funding sources? And what about the loopholes in their ad policies that allow such practices to persist? Numerous investigative reports have highlighted these policy flaws, yet Meta seems content to use their fact-checking partnerships as a shield, deflecting attention from the deeper issues that remain unaddressed.

Currently, there's significant discourse surrounding AI and deep fakes, yet the focus on AI-doomerism often distracts from other concerning practices, such as the utilization of surveillance ads or the targeted manipulation of specific demographics to influence opinions. These tactics are known strategies employed by malicious actors. As Meredith Whittaker, the president of Signal Foundation, aptly stated, "A deep fake is neither here nor there unless you have a platform + tools to disseminate it strategically."

Similarly, with platforms like X/Twitter, Elon Musk repeatedly champions Community Notes as the ultimate solution to combat misinformation, all the while endorsing known neo-Nazis and antisemites, including instances of his own engagement in antisemitic rhetoric. Community Notes alone cannot eliminate existing issues; it serves as just one facet in the broader effort to address this problem. 

And we still don’t know how to tackle misinformation in video-based platforms like TikTok, Instagram (reels), and YouTube. It's a huge mess, with everyone shrugging off accountability by selling lawmakers and the public schemes of third-party independent this and that.

5. How do we empower the public, the consumers of this unstoppable flow of mass information, to check their sources and check their facts?

There is of course no definitive answer. My personal strategy involves revisiting the core principles of media literacy and journalism. If we can diligently embed these principles in public consciousness, we stand to benefit greatly. However, every proposed solution necessitates thorough, long-term study to assess its effectiveness. Anything else merely serves as a sophisticated means of evading responsibility.