Shammas Oliyath has spent every lunch break for the last six months telling strangers all over India that a Gujarati woman didn’t really give birth to 11 babies at once, malicious Indian grocers aren’t really selling AIDS-laced fruits, Guinness hasn’t really declared Kannada the world’s oldest language, and the UNESCO certainly hasn’t named Narendra Modi as the world’s best Prime minister.
“It’s a social service,” he said. “I feel really good about clearing people’s misconceptions.”
Oliyath, a software engineer at IBM in Bengaluru, is the co-founder of Check4Spam.com, a website that focuses on fact-checking and busting viral hoaxes, urban myths, and political propaganda that are spreading on WhatsApp and rapidly becoming India’s own fake news crisis.
“We are hoping to become the Snopes of India,” Oliyath told BuzzFeed News, referring to the San Diego-based website that, in its 20-year history, has evolved from busting urban legends (Does a colony of alligators make its home in the New York City sewer system?) to fact-checking America’s 45th President himself. “We want to take the work Snopes has done and apply it in a very Indian context.”
Doing that not only means debunking Indian hoaxes but also doing it on the very platform where they originate: WhatsApp. The Facebook-owned instant messenger is used by more than 160 million Indians and is by far the fastest way that misinformation spreads in the country. Last year, the Indian state turned off internet access in large swaths of the country to prevent WhatsApp rumor-mongering from inciting tensions.
Check4Spam provides a dedicated phone number for people to forward any hoaxes they receive directly over WhatsApp. On a typical day, this hoax-busting hotline gets between 60 and 70 forwards to fact-check.
Oliyath works methodically through each forward he gets, sending back links if the rumor in question has already been busted on his website, and trawling the web to verify new ones.
He usually skips the first few dozen pages of search results and starts searching from the back “because that’s often where the original real post or image on which something fake is based on exists.”
Often, he relies on what India’s mainstream press has already reported, but says that he will frequently double and triple check even traditional sources to prevent any inherent media biases from tainting his debunking.
“Sometimes, we’ll get a lot of a certain piece of fake news or a hoax, so we can actually tell which hoax is trending on WhatsApp on that day,” Oliyath said. “WhatsApp is a good barometer.”
This ability to spot patterns in hoaxes is particularly useful. In the last few months, for instance, Oliyath has noticed a particular kind of hoax gaining popularity: fake promotional messages that promise free cellular data and voice minutes (including this gem where President Trump gives every Indian free mobile minutes) in exchange for clicking on a link or installing an app that inevitably turns out to be malware.
“I’m an English-speaking software engineer and I’m fairly savvy, so I can tell that things like these are fake,” said Oliyath. “But a lot of older people, early smartphone adopters, and people who don't read or speak English in India are often unable to tell that these promotions are fake and end up installing malware on their phones.”
Worse, Oliyath discovered that a significant number of his non English-speaking users often ended up mistaking his English debunk itself for a genuine promotion and ended up falling for it anyway. So now he writes “fake” in half a dozen Indian languages on these posts to make sure that users who don't understand English know it's a hoax.
Some rumors, like a recent one about buffalo-headed fish found in an Indian river, are fairly easy to bust: Oliyath ran the picture through a reverse image search and instantly found the original one (a regular fish, in case you're wondering). “Most of these guys are pretty bad at Photoshop!” he laughs.
Others are harder. Last year, when a WhatsApp forward about 275 job openings in Indian IT giant Wipro started doing the rounds, Oliyath had a Check4Spam volunteer call and email Wipro’s HR department to check if the news was true (it wasn’t).
“It’s a lot of legwork,” said Oliyath. “It’s tough to do it at scale.”
That’s the reason why Check4Spam recently started accepting debunks from volunteers over WhatsApp. “We allow anyone to volunteer,” said Oliyath. “But I do scrutinize volunteer-submitted debunks before posting them on the website.”
Oliyath said that the site currently receives half a million pageviews a month, driven largely by word of mouth (Snopes can get 2.5 million in a single day). Before Bal Krishn Birla, the site’s other co-founder came on board in July, Oliyath had been struggling to figure out a way to grow it. Birla, a serial entrepreneur and an SEO expert decided that staying topical was the key to growth.
When J Jayalalithaa, a prominent Indian politician, was admitted to a hospital in a critical condition in December, for instance, the duo stayed focused on debunking hoax messages and photographs about her death days before she actually passed away. “Once people receive a WhatsApp forward, they want to know whether it is true or not and they invariably end up looking it up on Google,” Birla told BuzzFeed News. “So SEO is important for us to grow.”
Birla lets Oliyath focus on the actual debunking and calls himself Check4Spam’s tech guy, focusing on keeping the website up and running. But he’s also drawing up a roadmap: he would eventually like to build a browser plugin to detect Indian fake news on the internet. And if WhatsApp ever lets third-party bots hook into it like Facebook Messenger, he thinks that building a fact-checking bot for India's most popular instant messenger would be a terrific use case.
For now, Check4Spam remains a labor of love. Both Birla and Oliyath said that they’re not looking for funding or revenue yet, mostly because their real jobs keep them busy, but might think about hiring one or two more fact-checkers to ease their load. The real motivation, they say, comes from the feedback they get.
“People are really overwhelmed when they actually send something over WhatsApp to our hotline and promptly receive a response,” said Oliyath. “I’ve had elderly strangers who are obviously new to WhatsApp thank me profusely for our service. Even if the website doesn’t grow or turn into anything significant, I’ll still bust hoaxes on WhatsApp for them.”
Want to verify a WhatsApp forward? Send it over to Check4Spam’s WhatsApp hotline at +919035067726.