How AltNews’ Pratik Sinha lied, manipulated a Kolkata NGO, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, for cheap PR for ‘AltED’

How AltNews' Pratik Sinha lied, manipulated a Kolkata NGO, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, for cheap PR for 'AltED'

On the 21st of May 2023, Pratik Sinha, the co-founder of propaganda ‘fact-checking’ website AltNews, took to Twitter to plug a The Hindu article. He informed that a program called ‘AltED’, incubated by AltNews, conducted a session with children where they were taught a course on ‘Digital Literacy’. “altED, incubated by @AltNews, is working on a curriculum that helps children be more cognizant of the information they consume. Here, @the_hindu has covered one of our recent efforts where the students showed what they have learnt”, he tweeted.

An Archive version of the tweet can be found here.

A research associate at AltNews who goes by the name Mahaprajna quoted Pratik Singh and confirmed the development. “For two months we worked on a media and information literacy programme with the children at Naba Disha community centre run by the NGO Vikramshila. Here is a report on the Consolidation event where children shared their learning experience. #AltED #MILCurriculumForIndia“, she tweeted.

This is current Mahaprajna’s ‘pinned tweet’, which clearly indicates she is extremely proud of this accomplishment, something she seems to have been personally involved in as well, given that she used the pronoun “we”.

Mahaprajna’s tweet was also dutifully retweeted by Mohammad Zubair, the co-founder of AltNews who regularly spreads fake news himself.

Retweet by Mohammad Zubair

Another individual, Anish Mukherjee also tweeted about the same. He wrote, At altED, we believe that in today’s world, media and information literacy is must-have life’s skill for all, especially for our children. We are not only building a curriculum, but making it happen in the classrooms. @AltNews“.

In his Twitter bio, Anish does not identify himself as working with AltNews. However, this individual is of particular important to this story and we will delve into his work with AltNews a little later in this report.

As soon as The Hindu article was published and the AltNews coterie tweeted the article out, there were several tweets lauding the efforts of AltNews and how they were taking their wisdom to the children now.

What The Hindu report said about the training session on ‘Digital Literacy’ conducted by AltNews

The Hindu report which was shared by Pratik Sinha and others on social media was wholly based on the version of Pratik Sinha – essentially – The Hindu had printed what Pratik Sinha had told them apparently, without talking to the NGO itself, it would appear.

The Hindu report said that this was a 2-month long program held at Nabadisha Community Centre, next to Taratala Police Station in Kolkata with kids who were between the ages 12 and 14. The course revolved around ‘media literacy’ and how to identify fake news, the report said.

“The community centre is being operated by Vikramshila Education Resource Society while the media literacy programme for children was conducted by Alt News, a well-known fact-checking website“, the report said.

The report also quoted an official media release by AltED, an initiative ‘incubated by AltNews’. “Children were introduced to the concept of misinformation and its components, taught skills to identify information received from social media as right or wrong based on available cues, and further encouraged to think about sources of misinformation within the media business context and how this impacts the information digital media users receive,” a media release by AltED, an initiative incubated by Alt News said, according to The Hindu report.

“The pre-pilot programme is an activity-based curriculum designed and taught by practitioners at AltED to develop knowledge, mindset, and skills in media literacy amongst youngsters by harnessing critical thinking and empathy,” Pratik Sinha, co- founder of Alt News told The Hindu.

The Hindu report said that the kids were taught how to identify fake news and along with that, they were also taught how to identify media bias. In the report, there was a section that spoke about the Taj Mahal. Apparently, the AltNews team taught young kids between 12 and 14 years of age how Taj Mahal being called Tejo Mahalaya was ‘fake news’.

“The programme also made an attempt so that the children can distinguish between kinds of sources. For instance, a game was devised between two groups of students who delved into fake information that ‘Taj Mahal was Tejo Mahalaya (a Hindu temple)’. One group of students who were reporters had to identify the right source to fact-check the information, while the other group of students who were in the audience cross-checked the reporters on the information they brought, the report said.

Gloating, Pratik Sinha told The Hindu, “We are approaching more schools and also working on finalising the curriculum. After that, the matter of scale will come and then we will approach the government so that they can include this in their regular syllabus”.

The archived version of the report by The Hindu can be read here.

Interestingly, when one is dealing with children between the ages of 12 and 14, telling them that sources identifying Islamic structures as Hindu temples are not to be believed, one pushes an ideological bias where Islamic onslaught is completely whitewashed since children would doubt even authentic history from reliable sources which do not conform to a Left/Islamist bias.

It is this part of The Hindu’s report that made OpIndia reach out to the Vikramshila Education Resource Society which operates the Nabadisha Community Centre where this AltNews program was supposedly held.

The NGO, which appears to only work with children to help them get an education without any ideological bias whatsoever (Left or Right), says they were manipulated, with AltNews associations remaining undisclosed.

Interestingly, the NGO told OpIndia that “The purpose of the program we agreed upon was to foster self-awareness, empathy, and critical thinking. It was based on these objectives that we gave our consent”. It also appears from the press release and the comments by AltNews that ‘fact-checking’ and ‘media bias’ was not meant to be the subject of the program at all.

What OpIndia found about AltNews and its supposed 2 month long program at this NGO, with kids aged between 12 and 14: Response from the Director of the NGO

OpIndia reached out to the Director of the NGO Vikramshila Education Resource Society which operates the Nabadisha Community Centre and posed a set of questions to her. We first informed her of the tweet by Pratik Sinha, who is a co-founder of AltNews and the report by The Hindu which named her NGO, the Community Centre it runs and the 2-month-long program conducted by AltNews.

Ms Shubhra Chatterji responded to the email sent by editor-in-chief Nupur J Sharma with the following statement:

We have been extremely disturbed by your mail as we were not aware of the piece that was published in The Hindu. Thank you for bringing our attention to this. I feel we have been manipulated into this kind of situation – because we extended our support to an individual called Anish Mukherjee and we were not aware of his links with Alt News or its agenda. In future, we will be more careful and will not allow any such thing to happen. 

Following this statement, Ms Chatterji responded to each of the 8 questions that were posed by OpIndia. Following is a verbatim reproduction of the questions and the answers provided by Ms Chatterji, the Director of NGO Vikramshila Education Resource Society which operates the Nabadisha Community Centre:

Q1: Could you perhaps tell us the gambit of the course that AltNews was providing to children. Was there any cultural, religious and/or political aspect to this course as well? 

A: We were approached by Anish Mukherjee of “Art for Play” – one of the partners of Wipro Foundation (we are also one of the partners). We had met him in one of the Wipro Forums. He requested us to give him permission to field test a course on Digital Literacy with some children in one of our community learning centres. Because of his credentials we agreed to his request – and we were not aware of any cultural, political agenda. We are a 33 year old organisation, and it is our organisational policy to keep ourselves free from any kind of political /cultural bias.

Q2: What was the process of partnering with AltNews? Were they recommended by someone or was this association spearheaded by your NGO itself? 

A2: We just gave Anish verbal permission to interact with our children and try out his sessions. Our teachers were present during his interactions – and did not report any kind of political/ cultural bias in the interactions he had with the children. So your mail has come as a complete surprise to us. We would like to clarify that we DO NOT HAVE any kind of partnership with Alt News or Alt Ed – it was purely a gesture of good will to an individual who came with reliable references. And I feel we had been misguided.

Q3: Are you aware of the pronounced ideological leanings of AltNews and its founders – Pratik Sinha and Mohammad Zubair? 

A3: No! Not at all! We do not know them personally. Nor we were aware of their role in the work Anish wanted to do.

Q4: Was AltNews’ ideological leaning and bias one of the deciding factors when the NGO partnered with AltNews? 

A4: No! We would definitely not have agreed if we were aware. And we thank you for updating us so that we can cautious in future.

Q5: Were any steps taken to ensure that their own ideological biases don’t creep into the program and contribute to affecting how the children’s ideological bent is shaped?

A5: Our teachers were around when Anish conducted the sessions – they would have definitely reported to us if they had found something amiss. So I am assuming that any such kind of dialogue may have taken place without our knowledge and outside the formal interactions. Henceforth we will be more careful.

Q6: The Hindu report states, “The programme also made an attempt so that the children can distinguish between kinds of sources. For instance, a game was devised between two groups of students who delved into fake information that ‘Taj Mahal was Tejo Mahalaya (a Hindu temple)’. One group of students who were reporters had to identify the right source to fact-check the information, while the other group of students who were in the audience cross-checked the reporters on the information they brought”. Under the garb of media literacy, were any other cultural and religious issues touched upon by AltNews? 

A6: We were very surprised to see this and we were not aware of any such discussion or session with the children. If it was done it was not in our knowledge – and we do not endorse any kind of controversial political discussion with children within our organisation. We cannot take responsibility for any such reporting as it was not in our knowledge. You may consider informing this to the concerned newspaper.

Q7: Do you believe that young children should be taught only one viewpoint of history that dismisses the existence of Hindu Temples when the historical barbarity of invaders is a documented fact? 

A7: We feel children should be exposed to different and multiple view points and not a one-sided or biased view of History. However, we are an organisation that works mainly with very young children at the early childhood education and primary stage. The Naba Disha Community learning centres are run in collaboration with the Kolkata Police to provide slum children with a safe space where they can do their studies.

Q8: Does Vikramshila Education Resource Society resonate with the ideological beliefs of AltNews and endorse that ideological bent being imparted to the children under their care? 

A8. No. We were introduced to Anish by people who are completely neutral and free from any ideological bias. We do not know the people behind Alt News. As an organisation, we strictly do not endorse any kind of ideological bent imparted to children.

What does it all mean: AltNews manipulated an NGO working with children, lied about association, according to the NGO

The crux of the matter can be summarised in a few lines – AltNews manipulated an organisation based in Kolkata with lies, and hidden associations and then publicly claimed credit for it, again, without the knowledge of the NGO. There are also suspicions that they blatantly lied to The Hindu about the course structure. We have also learnt that Pratik Sinha was not forthcoming while introducing himself that the program was meant to be an AltNews initiative.

Here is a summary of that the Director of the NGO told OpIndia:

  1. The NGO was approached by one Anish Mukherjee who founded “Art for Play” to seek permission to field-test a course on digital literacy.
  2. Since Art for Play partners with Wipro and the NGO does as well, the NGO gave verbal permission to Mukherjee to conduct this course with the children.
  3. They agreed for him to conduct the course because of his personal credentials and because he was introduced to the NGO by reliable people.
  4. Anish Mukherjee pparently did not disclose his association with AltNews and that the course would be conducted by AltNews.
  5. AltNews itself had no permission to conduct the 2-month-long program.
  6. Despite the non-disclosure, AltNews released a press note and spoke to The Hindu, saying that the program was conducted by them.
  7. The NGO was not aware of the ideological bias that AltNews harbours.
  8. The NGO did not partner with AltNews.
  9. The Director says that their teachers were present when Mukherjee was conducting the course and per their knowledge, the Taj Mahal conversation never came up. This means that either AltNews is lying or that Mukherjee had this conversation with the children without the knowledge of the NGO.
  10. The NGO also does not endorse controversial subjects like that of the Taj Mahal, or any conversation with an ideological bias of any kind, being had with the young, impressionable children.

Anish Mukherjee and the curious case of Pratik Sinha at the NGO

On Twitter, Anish Mukherjee does not mention in his bio that he is associated with AltNews.

Twitter bio of Anish Mukherjee from which he tweeted about AltEd

However, on his LinkedIn page, he mentions specifically that he is developing the “education intervention” vertical for AltNews.

LinkedIn profile of Anish Mukherjee

Interestingy, there is an image of Pratik Sinha himself present at the Nabadisha Community Centre where this 2-month program was being held.

Pratik Sinha at the Nabadisha Community Centre, picture taken by The Hindu photo journalist

When OpIndia reached out to the NGO again, OpIndia was categorically told that the NGO was not aware that AltNews was meant to conduct the program. After the NGO went back to confirm why Pratik Sinha was present at the venue, the NGO said:

“On further scrutinising, I got to know there was a couple of mail exchange between the person in charge from us and Anish, in which Pratik Sinha was copy marked along with many others since we do not sign any written MOU, this mail was not read properly and ignored. In reference to your query, our director has stated that we do not possess any information regarding  AltNews’ involvement, except for what was mentioned during the closing. From what I recall, Mr Sinha made a reference to Alt News. The entire closing programme and an invitation to the press were done by Anish without our knowledge. They just invited us to the closing programme”.

Essentially, the NGO says that when the one or two emails were exchanged between the NGO and Anish Mukherjee, Pratik Sinha was marked as a recipient among many others. There was no clarification that it would be AltNews that would be conducting this program. The press release thereafter to The Hindu, The Hindu photojournalist being present there was also not agreed upon by the NGO. Pratik Sinha, according to the NGO, was present on the last day and made some tangential reference to AltNews, however, the NGO was not aware of their association with this 2-month program itself.

Being an NGO, they are also not diligent in following emails and social media. They had agreed to this program because of Anish Mukherjee and his association with Wipro on the basis of verbal discussions. They maintain that they were misled into this association with AltNews.

What is far more interesting is that this image of Pratik Sinha was taken by Debasish Bhaduri, according to The Hindu report. Debasish Bhaduri is a photojournalist with The Hindu itself. Therefore, it appears as though it was Pratik Sinha who invited the media there, which clicked his picture, without the knowledge of the NGO.

It therefore also calls into question as to whether The Hindu was complicit in this charade by AltNews and were the top editors aware of the misrepresentation.

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