While the Delhi Police action was not unexpected, it’s ironic that a fact-checker who has published thousands of social media posts in the last eight years to expose fake news was to be arrested for an innocuous tweet that can’t be defined as hate speech. Rashae K | Clarion India LITTLE is known to the general public about Mohammad Zubair’s persona, the co-founder of Alt News, who was arrested last week over a tweet he made in 2018. While debunking misinformation on social media, he exposed fake news sites’ association with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the party in power at the Centre, through his investigations. Since he was in the crosshairs of the saffron party, his arrest, though created widespread outrage, did not surprise anybody. While the Delhi Police action was not unexpected, it’s an irony that a fact-checker who has published thousands of social media posts in the last eight years to expose fake news was to be arrested for an innocuous tweet that can’t be defined as a hate speech, as is being touted by the Delhi Police, from any angle. From an unassuming techie to a flamboyant fact-checker with life’s mission to expose falsehood and establish truth, Zubair’s journey though not easy, has been quite inspiring. With the arrest on trumped-up charges, life seems to have come full circle for Zubair. In the 40 years of his age, he has seen so many ups and downs that one can compare his life to a rollercoaster ride. Grown up under the shadow of Bengaluru’s IT hub known as Silicon Valley of India, a career in information technology was a natural choice for Zubair. While pursuing his successful career in the IT sector during 10-odd years, a full-time career in journalism was the last thing on his mind. But a twist in the nation’s history in 2014 brought about a drastic change in his personal life. According to his friends, till the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, he had no interest whatsoever in politics or fact-checking. But today, his life runs around these two topics. With over half a million followers on Twitter he has a larger-than-life online presence. So overwhelming is his online image that it has overshadowed his offline persona of a telecom engineer in Bengaluru who gave up the comforts of life of a techie to render service to humanity by drawing public attention to the misinformation in the Indian media, which, he quickly realised, was frequently in the form of hate speech targeting religious minorities. Born into a humble family of a fruit merchant, Zubair, the eldest of five siblings, grew up in Bengaluru’s JC Nagar area. He was the first in his family to get a bachelor’s degree. He graduated from the reputed MS Ramaiah Engineering College in Bengaluru. Zubair remained totally divorced from politics throughout his academic and professional life as a telecom engineer at reputed companies like Airtel and Cisco in Bengaluru. He had the longest stint at Nokia with a ten-year long association. According to his friends, as a child and even as a youth, he would spend his free time playing cricket in the neighborhood. However, he could no longer remain indifferent to politics. In the run-up to the 2014 general elections, Zubair stumbled upon a slew of political pages critical of the ruling UPA on Facebook as part of a propaganda campaign against the incumbent government. Taking a cue from the FB pages, he created a page of his own. Soon he will be able to accumulate more than three-and-a-half lakh followers. While struggling to make a mark in the new field, Zubair had a chance encounter with Pratik Sinha, an Ahmedabad-based software engineer who ran another popular Facebook page and website called ‘Truth of Gujarat’. Their common interests brought them together and they decided to work together. Pratik Sinha’s parents, mother Nirjhari, and father Mukul, were Ahmedabad-based human rights activists apart from being scientists. As a lawyer, Mukul Sinha represented victims of the communal riots in Gujarat in 2002 and took on the Narendra Modi government through cross-examination in the Nanavati-Shah Commission which investigated the Gujarat riots. Pratik, who was working as a software engineer in the United States, returned to Ahmedabad in 2013 when his father was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 31 and stayed back. Like Zubair, he too was aware of the havoc misinformation can cause. He learnt it from his parents’ experience of representing the victims of the 2002 riots. He not only examined his parents’ work but also published them on Truth of Gujarat. After a meeting in 2016, Zubair and Pratik realised how much they had in common. With this realisation they decided to work together on a mission to create awareness among people to make them accountable and equally worried about the adverse consequences of the misinformation and hate passing off as ‘news’ online. Thus, emerged the idea of Alt News, a fact-checking initiative, which was co-founded by Zubair, Pratik Sinha and his mother, Nirjhari Sinha. Ever since, there was no looking back, they set out to start a fact-checking initiative. The fact that no such websites existed in the Indian media space at that time was no deterrent to them. Launched in February 2017, the Alt News website’s first story debunking a GIF that showed Donald Trump holding aloft a folder reading “Vote for BJP”. Zubair took up the responsibility of managing fact-checking assignments apart from alerting about misinformation. The USP of Alt News is that it meticulously verifies and crosschecks the inputs with hard evidence before going on to publish its fact-check stories. They kept on relentlessly debunking misinformation and exposing news websites behind fake news. No wonder the popularity of Alt News among internet users grew by leaps and bounds. While debunking the misinformation, Zubair and the Sinhas saw a pattern in the way fake news is disseminated through mainstream and digital media. The misinformation is neither routine nor is it spontaneous, but is deliberately and recurrently planted in the news outlets with a design to target minorities. Most of such information comes under the hate-speech category. Besides the relentless pursuit of fact-checking misinformation, Alt News penetrates deep into the source and thereby exposes the people and the website behind it. They did not stop there, but exposed the political and ideological background of the website promoting the fake news. In many cases, the trail ended at the doorstep of the BJP’s IT cell which has eventually become an Achilles heel for Zubair. Since Alt News adopted an uncompromising approach to dig out the truth, they ran into trouble with the BJP leadership. Soon the ruling party was found trying to find ways and means to get even with the Alt News in general and Zubair in particular. In June this year, Zubair was booked for calling Hindutva leaders Bajrang Muni and Yati Narsinghanand ‘hate mongers’. When a Twitter account called The Hawk Eye accused Zubair of making “fun of gods, religion, culture and scriptures” on the basis of a satirical post he shared in 2018 calling for police action, there was an online campaign to arrest Zubair. But the campaign couldn’t sustain for long and died down with the passage of time. But with the suspension of BJP spokeswoman Nupur Sharma after her derogatory comments against Prophet Muhammad the campaign got a new lease of life. These online campaigns eventually culminated in Zubair’s arrest by the Delhi police on June 27.