Last week Instagram notified me that a viral post I had published was “fact checked” by a group called ‘The Healthy Indian Project’. My mother is from Bombay, and I did lose 40lbs last year, but I didn’t think they had created an entire unit just for me. So, I decided to find out who this group is. My findings are bemusing.
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The Healthy Indian Project (‘THIP’) appears to have started as a fitness and lifestyle site in 2018. Its CEO – Sudipta Sengupta – is a life-long marketing consultant from a small city (Gurgaon, Haryana) in India.
The group is a member of the high-profile Poynter network called the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN), though a two separate audits of its membership reveal concerns about non-partisanship, transparency, and the organization’s finances with a particular focus on a grant from the U.S.-based search engine Google:
“The applicant has shared proof of its status as a legally registered company. It has provided a balance sheet that indicates that the funding comes from its directors. They have mentioned a grant from Google this does not reflect in the balance sheet, we do not know if it accounts for more than 5% of the revenue. The balance sheet does not reflect any income or expenses.”
– IFCN assessor Surekha Deepak.
The network was added to Facebook’s “fact-checking” program – which includes Instagram – in the summer of 2021.
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Here’s the context behind this investigation.
On February 6th, I shared a screenshot of a Paul Hsieh article from Forbes:
Originally entitled, “Could A ‘Morality Pill’ Help Stop The Covid-19 Pandemic?” the August 30th 2020 article discussed the “widespread administration of psychoactive drugs” that “could provide ‘moral enhancement’ that would make people more likely to adhere to social norms such as wearing masks and adhering to social distancing guidelines.”
In other words, Huxley’s Soma.
My highlighting of the article and its contents even garnered a retweet from current media ‘bad boy’ Joe Rogan, causing author Hsieh and outlet Forbes to both alter the headline and attach an amendment to the article insisting that Hsieh was not in favor of the “morality pill.”
But whether or not the author was in favor of the pill was not the point of my posts. I couldn’t care less what Hsieh’s position on the matter is. I care about the fact this is being discussed, or developed. Spreading the word was a way to warn people about this pill, not the opinion of some radiologist with 2,000 Twitter followers.
Regardless, the “fact check” article of my post is headlined: “Fact Check: Does Forbes’ article suggest the ‘morality pill’ to stop the COVID-19 pandemic?”
Again, to be clear, nowhere did I claim Forbes “suggested” the morality pill to “end the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The “fact check” now counts as a violation against my Facebook and Instagram pages, affecting reach and potentially leading to the removal of my pages from those platforms. Worse still, the “fact check” obfuscates the truth about this so-called “morality pill,” i.e. that it is actually a real discussion taking place in academic and “scientific” circles.
The review of my posts was performed by someone who isn’t even listed on the staffing page for THIP”: Dr. Shikha Shiromani.
There is scant information about anyone by that name online, and there is no headshot nor significant biography for the author on the THIP website.
This shady publishing practice, coupled with another assessment from the IFCN, raises questions as to whether or not people like Dr. Shiromani even exist.
In May 2020 IFCN assessor Kanchan Kaur wrote of THIP:
“The applicant has shared proof of its status as a legally registered company. It has provided a balance sheet that indicates that the funding comes from its directors. However, in the balance sheet, it does not show an expenses toward staff salaries and the like. Perhaps an explanation is in order.”
In fact, a lot of THIP’s online presence gives the feel of a chop-shop of people who may or may not exist. Even the so-called “Editorial Team” is a slipshod web page with half names, missing images, and biographies for just four people.
CEO Sudipta Sengupta is listed, then a person simply called “Nishant” is listed as the site’s Executive Editor.
Nishant is alleged to be a “seasoned journalist with over 18 years of experience,” but even a cursory glance at his LinkedIn page shows no such history. Instead, Nishant himself claims to have worked for something called “NewsX” for one year, the “Millenium Post” for less than a year, and THIP for two years and five months. Hardly the 18 years of journalistic experience THIP claims:
But even if Nishant just forgot about his previous 14 years of experience, the inconsistencies are not limited to the site’s Executive Editor.
Next on the list is another faceless, one-name profile of someone called “Geetika”.
Geetika Veti does have a surname in her LinkedIn bio, which reveals she has been a public relations writer for the Accenture corporation for 10 years, and a “Sub Editor” for the Economic Times for 19 months. Again, hardly a journalistic titan.
Fourth on the THIP list is Smita Anand, an English teacher and copywriter. And it gets even stranger after her.
Satish Srivastava has no picture, and is simply described as having “over 10 years of experience working as a professional in multiple industries including events and training.” No LinkedIn bio is linked for Srivastava.
The one-named “Niranjan” is oddly described as a “technocrat by educational background and a content lover from heart.”
Finally, Dilpreet Kaur Virk is vaguely described as a “multi-talented professional with 18 years of experience in handling various roles in the corporate sector.”
In other words, none of the THIP Editorial Team are actually reporters with any credibility. Nor do they appear to be subject matter experts in the topics “fact-checked” by THIP, which include healthcare, COVID-19, current affairs, and politics. More to the point: the politics of nations half-way across the planet from THIP’s oddly-located headquarters.
It gets stranger, still.
While a number of THIP staff list New Delhi as their place of origin or residence, the official THIP address is listed as nearly 1,000 miles away in West Bengal, near Calcutta and India’s eastern border with Bangladesh.
Two addresses exist for THIP, the most frequent being listed as No: 95 Dwarik Jungle Road, Bhadrakali in a district by the name of Hoogly.
There isn’t a Google StreetView available, and no images of the THIP office. But the pictures of the surrounding neighborhood don’t fill me with confidence about the operation.
Another big question remains: who is funding this chop shop in the slums of India, in order to “fact check” accredited Western journalists?
This bring us to the “how”. As usual, the culprits appear to be the same Big Tech barons who often freely wield the banhammer this side of the planet: Google.
THIP’s 2020 balance sheet reveals cash on hand roughly equivalent to $1,300 USD. While a $200 USD a month salary goes a decent way in a place like Hoogly, $1,300 doesn’t seem quite enough to run a reputable fact-checking operation accredited by Poynter. And that was in THIP’s second year of operations.
Then, something happened.
The 2021 balance sheet reveals a far healthier ₹2,310,383 (Indian rupees) in revenue, equivalent to about $31,000 USD.
While that’s hardly a lot for a Silicon Valley giant like Google, it would certainly pay for an office and a handful of staff in India for a year or more.
Indeed the THIP “Funding” web page reveals that Google is almost their only source of income:
“On August 2020, THIP Media received a grant of USD 31,800 from YouTube (via the Google News Initiative) through Fact Checking Development Fund. The grant was given towards THIP Media’s project of building Short Video Facts. You can read about the grant here. The grant amount constitute [sic] the major part of THIP Media’s earning for the financial year.”
It turns out YouTube, via the Google News initiative, distributed $1,000,000 in 2020/21 to 22 different programs from around the world. This grant included THIP alongside better known outlets such as USA Today ($38,400), Le Monde ($50,000), and the Washington Post ($50,000).
While evidently strange enough in and of itself, this Google-backed censorship program in an Indian slum has at least one more bizarre approach to transparency and fact-checking, as laid out on their Editorial Policy page.
THIP admits, despite being a “fact checking” service, that it does NOT change the ratings of articles if the facts change. Here is how they justify it:
“Medical Science is a constantly changing field with researches happening across multiple genres in multiple locations. Hence we accept that every piece of information is subject to change. We make active efforts to periodically review every piece of information and keep them updated. Last update date is mentioned on every article.
“However, when a new research finding changes the result of an old fact check article, we DO NOT change the rating of the article keeping the time context in mind. We add an extra paragraph below the article, wherever possible, to update readers about the new findings.”
This practice can actively skew search engine results on critical topics related to health. In fact, Google appears to be funding a practice that could corrupt the integrity of its own search engine’s results, with the above refusal to alter or remove factually incorrect articles in a satisfactory manner.
In conclusion: there’s a handful of people (some of whom may not even exist) in a small town in India, being given grants by Google to censor news and social media posts in America and the Western world. They’re used by Facebook and Instagram as reliable actors, and frankly, I’m not sure any of them have any real journalistic experience or accreditation. Weird.