A YouTuber named Vinodh Kumar, who runs a channel named String, posted a video recently where he makes a series of claims regarding alleged links between fact checking website Alt News, and billionaire George Soros. He also claims that the toolkit posted by Greta Thunberg allegedly points to a conspiracy against India involving Digipub - a recently launched initiative by digital-only Indian news organisations.
Full Disclosure: BOOM is also part of Digipub.
BOOM analysed the claims made by Kumar in the video, and found them to baseless and unfounded, with no evidence being provided to back either of them.
Kumar, who claims in the video that his life will be in danger following its release, and then calls for certain journalists to be hanged, had his video taken down by YouTube for violating the platform's policy on harassment and bullying. Many social media users re-uploaded it on several sites, and some politicians from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party also came in defence of the video.
Let us take a closer look at some of the claims Kumar makes, and why they cannot withstand scrutiny.
CLAIM: "Digipub Is Linked To Greta Thunberg's Toolkit"
Earlier this month, after international celebrities like Rihanna and climate change activist Greta Thunberg tweeted in support of the farmers' protests, things took a different turn when Thunberg posted a 'toolkit' containing details of a social justice campaign highlighting the protests, and the excesses by the Indian government in quelling them. Many on social media, along with members and departments of the Union Ministries, called it a conspiracy against India's sovereignty.
In the video made by Kumar, he claims that this 'toolkit' is linked to Digipub - a collaborative initiative by several Indian digital news organisations in India. To justify his claim, Kumar pulls up a list of Twitter handles mentioned in the toolkit, which included news websites Newslaundry, The Wire, Scroll and fact checking website Alt News, along with independent journalist Faye D'Souza and Alt News co-founder Mohammed Zubair.
Kumar then referred to a tweet made by Quartz journalist Annalisa Merelli, where she lists a number of independent news media entities in a thread as a sign of solidarity.
He then suggests that Merelli's tweet is linked to the toolkit because four entities mentioned in the toolkit - Alt News, PARI network, Newslaundry, The Wire and Scroll - were also mentioned by Merelli in her thread, and because she posted her thread two days before Thunberg tweeted out the toolkit.
Kumar, however, fails to provide any further evidence as to how they are connected, beyond Merelli mentioning a few of the handles that appeared in the toolkit. Further, he also fails to mention that Merelli had tweeted out the names of 11 other news media entities that does not feature in the toolkit - The Caravan, The News Minute, Khabar Lahariya, IndiaSpend, Economic and Political Weekly, Fifty Two Dot In, Article 14, Gauri Lankesh News, The Quint, Outlook India and Himalistan.
He then pulls up the names of member organisations of Digipub, and states that four of the news websites and an independent journalist - Alt News, Newslaundry, Scroll, The Wire and Faye D'Souza - find mention in the toolkit posted by Thunberg. He also states that some of the other members like The News Minute, The Quint and Article 14 have been mentioned in Merelli's thread as well.
Based on this, Kumar infers that Merelli's thread, Thunberg's toolkit and Digipub are all linked, and part of a conspiracy against India.
BOOM found this inference to be flawed, as Kumar fails to provide any circumstantial or direct evidence pointing to a connection. The toolkit mentions only four out of 15 news media entities mentioned by Merelli in her thread. Similarly, it mentions four out of 11 member entities of Digipub.
These mentions are not enough to conclusively state that the toolkit is linked to Merelli's thread and Digipub itself. Given that most of Digipub's members are popular independent digital news entities that have reported on the ongoing farmers' protests, it is not surprising that some of its members found mention in a toolkit linked to a social justice campaign and a thread on independent news entities.
Furthermore, the idea of Digipub was conceived far before the farmers' protests began, and even before the farm laws were implemented. Dhanya Rajendran, the chairperson of Digipub and the co-founder and editor-in-chief of The News Minute, told BOOM that the collaborative platform was conceptualised in 2018, and registered in August, 2020 - nearly a month before the farm laws causing the protests were passed in the parliament.
"In March 2018, the then Information and Broadcasting Minister Smriti Irani spoke about the need for a "laws, ethics and rules" to govern the digital media space. Within days, in April 2018, one of us reached out to many digital media sites repeating the request that we need to form an umbrella organisation for independent, smaller digital media platforms," Rajendran said.
"In the next two years, we went back and forth, but frankly everyone was busy running their own organisations. Then on July 30, 2020, another mail was sent saying that we have been discussing this for too long and we need to close it. Over the next few weeks, we held many rounds of discussions on whether to register a trust, foundation, association etc and finally on August 25, 2020, the name was registered. We finalised our committees, board etc and then made an announcement," she added.
CLAIM: "Digipub Was Set Up To Receive Foreign Funds"
Kumar then claims at some point in the video that Digipub was set up in October last year to receive funds from abroad to run campaigns against India.
Rajendran dismissed this claim and told BOOM that Digipub has received no external funds, nor has it ever been approached by any external organisation with any request to cover the farmers' protest in a specific way. "Any of our funding will be from members only. We have got no donations or grants yet, nor have we asked anyone. It's in its infancy. It was conceptualised only in 2018," she adds.
Furthermore, while nearly all member organisations of Digipub have reported on the Narendra Modi-led administration from a critical viewpoint, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that any of the members has run a campaign against India.
CLAIM: "Alt News Funded By George Soros Through IFCN"
The next claim in Kumar's video is that of fact checking website Alt News being indirectly funded by Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros and his grant network Open Society Foundation (OSF), through the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) by Poynter Institute of Journalism.
He makes this inference by first claiming that Alt News has been certified by IFCN, and then stating that IFCN and its parent organisation Poynter Institute have received considerable funding from OSF.
Baybars Orsek, the director of IFCN, told BOOM that while IFCN did receive funding from OSF from 2017 to 2020, it has had no influence on the work done by IFCN.
"Identical to our other funders, OSF never had any impact and/or influence over our work. We always have found their support helpful to the cause of strengthening IFCN and the fact-checking community, however, it did not have any impact on our agenda," Orsek said.
Furthermore, the IFCN certification - of which BOOM is also a signatory - does not come with any grants or funds. On this note, Orsek added, "Alt News has never received any funding from IFCN in any form. Plus, Alt News has not been a signatory since April 29, 2020."
While Alt News is no longer a signatory, IFCN currently certifies 10 other fact checkers in India - BOOM, Factly, FactCrescendo, NewsMeter, Digiteye India, India Today, The Healthy Indian Project, The Quint and Vishwas News.
This suggests, yet again, that Kumar's inference is flawed - he does not provide any further evidence to prove a link between Alt News and OSF and Soros, and picks out only Alt News - a former IFCN signatory - while dismissing 10 other current signatories.
It should be noted that George Soros is the subject of many conspiracy theories, with the most popular one being that he funds people to protest in several countries and controls much of liberal media globally. Here are some of the conspiracy theories on Soros, listed by The Washington post.
The video made by Kumar is highly sensational, and riddled with inaccurate claims and inferences, and does not contain any factual evidence to show a conspiracy against India. Kumar starts out in the video claiming that his life maybe in danger, while also calling for a few journalists to be hanged, adding to the sensational nature of the video.
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