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The Press Information Bureau’s (PIB) online Fact Check Unit (FCU) account claimed that an article published by The Wire, and authored by two IFF staffers, is misleading. We wrote to them seeking clarification on these claims.

26 April, 2023
5 min read

tl;dr

The Press Information Bureau’s (PIB) online Fact Check Unit (FCU) account claimed that an article published by The Wire, and authored by two IFF staffers, is misleading. The article, published on April 20, 2023, was based on the information received in response to an RTI request filed by the IFF, pertaining to information relating to the PIB’s FCU. In response to the claim that the article is misleading, The Wire, with assistance from IFF staffers, published a response to the claim on April 21, 2023, scrutinising and challenging the claim. Further, IFF sent a letter to the PIB FCU asking them to communicate a clarification on the claim, among other requests.

Timeline

March 30, 2023: IFF filed an RTI with the PIB, in which it asked eight questions, relating mainly to the composition of the PIB’s FCU, as well the numbers of cases of fact checking that were reported to, acted upon, and “busted” by the PIB FCU (link to the RTI request).

April 17, 2023: In the RTI response received by IFF, the PIB revealed, among other things, that it has “received a total of 1,18,948 queries since April 02, 2020”. It also revealed that as of April 16, 2023, the “number of total Fact Checks done is 1,223” and of these, the “number of total Fake News Busted is 1189.” (link to the RTI response)

April 20, 2023: The Wire published an article authored by two IFF staffers which included the information received in the RTI response, provided under Section 7 of the Right to Information Act (RTI) Act, 2005. The article also analysed the wide gap between the total number of queries received and acted upon (link to The Wire article).

April 21, 2023: PIB’s FCU, through its Twitter account, claimed that the article in question is misleading. The thread also stated 5 “facts” which were the stated reasons for labelling the article as misleading (link to the Twitter thread).

April 21, 2023: The Wire published a statement along with a response authored by the two IFF staffers on April 21, 2023, scrutinising and challenging PIB FCU’s claim. The statement responded to each of the 5 claims made by the PIB FCU in detail and justified why the information put out in the original article was not misleading (link to the The Wire statement).

April 22, 2023: IFF sent a representation to the PIB FCU, seeking clarification on the PIB fact check unit’s claim that the article is misleading. Detailed reasoning clarifying the inclusion of the information and analysis in the article was also included in the letter (link to the letter).

Argument

Via its Twitter account, the PIB FCU put forth 5 points as justification for why The Wire’s article published on April 20 is misleading. These are the 5 points, and our responses thereto:

  • A total of 1,19,572 queries have been received.

This appears to be an updated number. In the RTI response, the PIB stated that "the unit has received a total of 1,18,948 queries since April 02, 2020". A rough estimate of 1.2 lakhs was used in the article.

  • The above total comprises 80,236 queries which were deemed not relevant, and 39,336 queries which were deemed actionable.
  • All the actionable queries were acted upon via direct reply to individuals often with information useful for the individual concerned.

This above information, particularly any distinction of this nature, was not provided in PIB’s RTI response dated April 17, 2023. Further, the claim that not all queries received are relevant and only some are deemed actionable has been accounted for in paragraph 3 of the April 20 Article. It posits possible explanations for the difference between the number of queries received (1,18,948) and fact checks done (1,223). It accounts for the possibility of duplicate/incomplete queries received and that only a subset (37,000) were deemed actionable by PIB's Fact Check Unit. Notably, even this gap is high and is followed by a call to address scale and capacity issues.

It is worth noting that the article proactively introduces ‘actional queries’ by relying on additional sources of information, i.e. two recent parliamentary responses which stated that the actionable queries received by the PIB fact check unit were 37,000 (see here and here for the parliamentary response cited in The Wire article).

  • Moreover, 1,225 fact checks were posted on Fact Check social media platforms of PIB. These were found suitable of public posting and are considered by PIB as fact checks.

The 1,225 also seems to be an updated number. In its response to the RTI Application, the PIB has claimed that “the number of total Fact Checks done is 1223”, as of April 16, 2023. The PIB has neither clarified what it considers as “doing a fact check” nor that its view is that posting on social media is what constitutes “doing a fact check”. It would appear that it has done 2 more fact checks since then. Perhaps, including one to our own article.

  • The article wrongly describes these fact check posts as the number of queries acted upon. This is misleading. A single fact check post could result from an assessment of multiple actionable queries as well as information from other sources, including suo-moto cognizance by PIB.

The article itself accounts for duplication of queries, and also refers to the PIB’s powers of taking suo motu cognizance in the third and second paragraph respectively. The article describes the fact checks done as queries acted upon for the simple reason that this was conveyed by the PIB in its RTI response through its statement “number of total Fact Checks done is 1,223.”

Our response

Given the above mentioned reasoning and justification, we dispute the PIB FCU’s claim that The Wire article published on April 20 is “misleading”. In addition to assisting The Wire on the statement / response to the claim, IFF sent a letter seeking clarification on the claim. With respect to the original article published by The Wire, we asked the FCU to communicate a clarification on the unit’s claim that the article is misleading. Specifically, we also asked the unit to clarify that the article did in fact account for the possibility of duplicate / insufficient queries and cited a figure of “37,000 actionable queries” from alternative publicly available sources of information even as this information was not provided by the PIB in the RTI response.

On a broader level, we emphasised on the need to make the PIB FCU’s composition and mode of working more transparent and accessible to the public, given the public nature of the unit’s duties and functions. We also requested the FCU to make public the methodology and rationale behind classifying queries as “actionable” and “non-actionable”, and to periodically release the total number of actionable queries, queries actioned upon, and fact checks done. Lastly, we requested them to make available a database of all instances of content that the unit has fact checked and acted upon, as well as fact checked and found not to be false. In the spirit of participative democracy and transparency, we hope that the FCU responds to our representation sent in good faith, much like the information provided by the PIB under the RTI Act, 2005.

Important Documents

  1. IFF’s RTI request (link)
  2. RTI response received by IFF (link)
  3. The Wire article dated April 20, 2023 (link)
  4. PIB’s Twitter thread (link)
  5. Response published by The Wire (link)
  6. IFF’s letter to the PIB FCU (link)

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