The Internet is a treasure trove of information and stories. These stories have the power to make you smile with joy, cry (or yell) in frustration, or reaffirm your faith in humanity. But often, they can also fool you. You might think that your intestines are lined with undigested noodles or that Mumbai is the new breeding ground for the Ebola virus. Yet many of them are untrue, and two techies are out to prove it.
Check4Spam, founded by Bal Krishn Birla and Shammas Oliyath, debunks these internet rumours, one post at a time.
It was Shammas, an IBM employee, who came up with the concept in 2015. “I am an avid social media user,” he says. “I realised that so many of the stories circulating on Facebook and Whatsapp were complete hoax. But convincing people can be difficult without proof.”
A string of misleading posts changed his mind, and Shammas picked up a WordPress site and began posting. As a project along with regular work, his posts were initially sporadic. Things picked up when Shammas was joined by Bal Krishn, a self-confessed serial entrepreneur, in 2016.
“We have a few things in common—we are techies, share a love for music (the two have worked together on music projects) and are invested in social causes,” says Bal Krishn. “I take care of the tech issues while Shammas does most of the hard work. Fake news has great impact, particularly among older people who aren’t always as tech savvy. We receive these posts and verify whether they are in fact true.”
Users can share their concerns via WhatsApp, the duo researches it and responds to the queries.
Check4Spam receives over 100 messages per day, and puts up an average of 2 to 3 debunking posts on its website daily.
Many stories are obviously fake, easy to detect with Google searches and online tools. But both Bal Krishn and Shammas agree that the popularity of some of these posts can make it very difficult. The duo wades through pages of rumours and false information, till they find the right sources.
“Many of the queries sent to us by people are stories we have already covered before. I usually let them know about the story,” Shammas says. “For the rest, I use my lunch break—and nights—to research and post them on the website. Picture-based stories and information can fill up many pages of Google – I have sometimes checked over 40 pages of search results before I found the facts.”
The duo also gets in touch with families, corporations and anyone involved with the circulated stories for fail-safe checks.
A bewildering variety of rumours and false stories abound on the Internet, waiting for people to lap them up.
Bal Krishn says, “Some posts are meant to malign people or have some purpose, but we find that many fake posts in India are only meant to create nuisance.”
Shammas finds a great deal of propaganda posts doing the rounds. “Some time earlier, news began doing the rounds that Mumbai’s forthcoming Shivaji statue will be made of solar cells. The post was beautifully written and very convincing. We found that it was just a hoax to counter the criticism the statue’s erection had been receiving.”
A nationalist angle makes people very susceptible to such posts. Bal Krishn recalls a post that even fooled him. “A post declared that Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev were hanged on February 14, Valentine’s Day. Even I have probably shared it at some point,” he says. “But this time, we researched and discovered they were hanged in March. Now we have a post about it on the website.”
Check4Spam is a self-funded project. While Bal Krishn manages tech, Shammas handles the research.
The lack of people for on-ground research can often present a hindrance. The website is currently seeking volunteers which the duo hopes will help them cover stories faster and more efficiently.
“Everyone is frustrated with social media,” Shammas says. “We have seen that people often debunk these facts for themselves. If they share it with us and others, that would make a lot of difference.”
Developed between full-time ventures and a plethora of commitment, Check4Spam is a labour of love. As Bal Krishn says, “We love doing this. When we now find people themselves checking and pointing out spam posts, we feel great.”
Send posts for verification, and volunteer queries, to Check4Spam via WhatsApp on +91 90350 67726.