New Delhi, Apr 10 (AP/UNB) — New Delhi shop owner Ram Shankar Rai spends at least two hours a day going through political news and videos shared with him on social media.
Rai looked intently at a flurry of videos and photos on WhatsApp about an Indian airstrike in Pakistan, including pictures labeled as militants' corpses.
There was just one problem: The photos were not of militants but of casualties of a 2005 earthquake that killed thousands of people in Pakistan.
But the 50-year-old didn't see anything amiss. "It's news," he said. "How can it be fake?"
Before the world's largest democracy starts voting Thursday in a phased election carried out over six weeks, this attitude is posing a problem for election officials seeking to combat the spread of fake news among a population that experts say has proven highly susceptible to believing it.
Despite efforts by India's Election Commission to work with social media giants, urging them to tackle the spread of misinformation, at least one former top election official is warning that fake news could end up being the deciding factor in some constituencies with extremely tight races.
The election is already taking place in a charged atmosphere as Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party seeks a second term by pushing policies that some say have increased religious tensions and undermined multiculturalism.
The opposition Congress party, which is also spending sizable sums of money on social media ads, is trying to revive its past glory and turn around a declining voter base.
Tackling fake news is a huge challenge in India, a nation with 1.14 billion cellphone connections, the most Facebook users in the world at 300 million, and another 240 million users of the messaging service WhatsApp. In such an environment, fake news can spread faster than regulators can act.
Watchdogs say in the run-up to the vote they've seen everything from manipulated pictures being picked up by mainstream news media, to misrepresented quotes sparking communal division, false news and hateful propaganda. And it looks like people are buying it.
Indian internet users, many of whom are relatively new to the web, may lack the awareness of knowing that "just because it's on a screen does not mean it's true," said Apar Gupta, who runs an advocacy group called the Internet Freedom Foundation.
India's problem with fake news isn't new, though, and it has already proven to have deadly consequences. In late 2018, at least 20 people were killed in mob attacks that were triggered by rumors on social media of strangers abducting children from villages.
Efforts by social media giants to combat fake news in the country were intensified after executives were called in by the Election Commission earlier this year and told to curb the spread of manipulative political information and adhere to the country's laws on election campaigning.
Social media companies followed that with a "Voluntary Code of Ethics" for the elections that they submitted to the government. It's essentially a best practices agreement that they will try to abide by the Election Commission's suggestions and rules, including prohibiting campaign advertisements for at least 48 hours before polling begins.
But at least two former Election Commission bosses said they don't believe enough is being done.
"The potential of mischief for subversion of the process of elections represented by social media is immense," said N. Gopalaswami, who was India's chief election commissioner from 2006 to 2009.
He said he was concerned fake news could play a huge role in very tight races.
Gupta said the Election Commission should have enforced accountability for political parties and social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp, with penalties for violations.
"India has clearly not done enough," he said, adding that some of the responsibility lies with the social media platforms.
"The internet has grown up and is having to leave its parents' home and find a job," he said, suggesting that platforms should tune their search engine algorithms to weigh the credibility of sources more heavily than ads and viral content.
Digital platforms have been scrambling to devise strategies to tackle the spread of false information ahead of the election.
Facebook announced a variety of measures last month, from blocking fake accounts to employing third-party fact-checking organizations for the elections.
WhatsApp has introduced a fact-checking helpline, encouraging users to flag messages for verification. It also started re-circulating an old advertising video urging people to "share joy, not rumors." The video was first launched after the 2018 mob attacks.
But with new pages and accounts being created daily to push political content, it's a hefty task.
"It is an adversarial space," said Kaushik Iyer, a Facebook engineering manager who works on election integrity and safety.
"What that means is that we will always see adaptation. We will always see new threats emerge," he told The Associated Press in an interview at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, California.
He said Facebook was getting better at tracking down the misrepresented and manipulated videos and audio that form a big chunk of fake content on their platform in India.
And for all its negatives, social media can also play a positive role in an election, especially for young voters who say it has enabled them to better understand candidates and engage with them.
"Rather than campaign rallies where we are just passive observers, social media is a better representation of our opinions," said Sarthak Singh Dalal, a history student at Delhi University.
Rai, the shop owner, said he has started to take a closer look at the social media content forwarded to him, trying to identify biases hidden in what he had just considered news.
"Obviously, we have to use a bit of sense," he said.
Associated Press writer Haven Daley in Menlo Park, California, contributed to this report.
Kuala Lumpur, Apr 10 (AP/UNB) — The wife of Malaysia's former Prime Minister Najib Razak was hit Wednesday with a new corruption charge over a solar energy contract.
Rosmah Mansor pleaded not guilty to accepting a 5 million ringgit ($1.22 million) bribe through her aide from a manager at Jepak Holdings as a kickback for helping secure a contract from the Education Ministry. She has also been charged with laundering illegal proceeds and tax evasion in a massive graft scandal that led to Najib's electoral loss last May.
The Education Ministry awarded the 1.25 billion ringgit contract to supply and install solar energy panels in 369 schools in eastern Sarawak state on Borneo to Jepak without open tender.
Najib, his former deputy and several high-ranking former officials have already been charged with corruption after the election ushered in the first change of power since Malaysia's independence from Britain in 1957.
Najib, whose first trial began last week after months of delay, has accused the new government of seeking political vengeance. But Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has said the court cases were based on the rule of law and that those accused will be given fair trials.
Kabul, Apr 10 (AP/UNB) — U.S. forces in Afghanistan revised on Tuesday the death toll from a Taliban attack the previous day near the main American base in the country, saying three service members were killed but not a contractor who was initially reported among the fatalities.
The U.S. and NATO Resolute Support mission issued a statement "to clarify initial reporting" about Monday's roadside bombing of an American convoy near the main U.S. base. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.
The Pentagon said later that all three service members killed were Marines.
The mission said a roadside bomb hit the convoy near the Bagram Airfield, killing three American service members, and said "the contractor who was reported as killed, is alive."
The statement said "the contractor, an Afghan citizen, was initially treated along with other injured civilians, later identified as a contractor and treated at Bagram Airfield."
Three other U.S. service members were also wounded in the attack. The base in Bagram district is located in northern Parwan province and serves as the main U.S. air facility in the country.
The wounded were evacuated and are receiving medical care, the statement said.
Christopher Slutman, a 15-year New York City fire department member, was among the three Marines killed. He leaves behind his wife, Shannon, and three daughters.
"Firefighter Slutman bravely wore two uniforms and committed his life to public service both as a New York City firefighter and as a member of the United States Marine Corps," Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said in a written statement.
The Pentagon identified the two other Marines killed as Cpl. Robert A. Hendriks, 25, of Locust Valley, New York, and Sgt. Benjamin S. Hines, 31, of York, Pennsylvania.
In their claim of responsibility, the Taliban said they launched the attack and that one of their suicide bombers detonated his explosives-laden vehicle near the NATO base. The conflicting accounts could not be immediately reconciled.
On Tuesday, local Afghan officials said at least five Afghan civilians were wounded in the commotion after the attack on the American convoy.
Four were passersby and the fifth was a driver of a car going down the road, said Abdul Raqib Kohistani, the Bagram district police chief. Abdul Shakor Qudosi, the district administrative chief in Bagram, said American soldiers opened fire immediately after their convoy was bombed.
Monday's U.S. fatalities bring to seven the number of U.S. soldiers killed so far this year in Afghanistan, underscoring the difficulties in bringing peace to the war-wrecked country even as Washington has stepped up efforts to find a way to end the 17-year war, America's longest.
There are about 14,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan, supporting embattled Afghan forces as they struggle on two fronts — facing a resurgent Taliban who now hold sway over almost half the country and also the Islamic State affiliate, which has sought to expand its footprint in Afghanistan even as its self-proclaimed "caliphate" has crumbled in Syria and Iraq.
Last year, 13 U.S. service members were killed in Afghanistan.
The Taliban have continued to carry out daily attacks on Afghan security forces despite holding several rounds of peace talks with the United States in recent months. The Taliban have refused to meet with the Afghan government, which they view as a U.S. puppet.
Meanwhile, the Taliban have agreed to take part in an all-Afghan gathering later this month in Qatar, where the insurgents maintain a political office. But the Taliban say they will not recognize any government official attending the gathering as a representative of the Kabul government, only as an individual Afghan participant.
New Delhi, Apr 10 (AP/UNB) — Indian authorities charged a Roman Catholic bishop on Tuesday with repeatedly raping a nun in her rural convent, a case that helped make the sexual abuse of nuns a major issue in the church.
Bishop Franco Mulakkal was charged with rape, illegal confinement and intimidation, said Hari Sankar, a district police chief in the southern state of Kerala, India's Catholic heartland.
The nun who made the accusations, who has not been publicly identified, said she went to police last year only after complaining repeatedly to church authorities. Eventually, a group of fellow nuns launched unprecedented public protests to demand Mulakkal's arrest. He was arrested but released after a few weeks.
Mulakkal was the official patron of the nun's community, the Missionaries of Jesus, and wielded immense influence over its budgets and job assignments. The nun said the rapes occurred between 2014 and 2016.
Mulakkal has denied the accusations, calling them "baseless and concocted" and saying the accusing nun was trying to pressure him to get a better job.
In February, Pope Francis for the first time publicly acknowledged the sexual abuse of nuns by priests and bishops.
Speaking to reporters aboard the papal plane, Francis vowed to confront the problem. "Should we do something more? Yes. Is there the will? Yes. But it's a path that we have already begun," he said.
The Mulakkal case has split India's Catholic community, with many people defending the bishop.
In March, the founder of the Vatican's women's magazine, along with the magazine's all-female editorial board, quit their positions, saying a Vatican campaign to discredit them had increased since they denounced the sexual abuse of nuns by priests and bishops.
Tokyo, Apr 10 (AP/UNB) — A Japanese air force F-35 stealth fighter crashed into the Pacific Ocean during a night training flight and parts of the jet were recovered, the defense ministry said Wednesday.
The pilot is still missing. The F-35A stealth jet disappeared from radar while flying off the eastern coast of Aomori and parts of the jet were found late Tuesday, the Air Self-Defense Force said.
It went missing about half an hour after taking off from the Misawa air base with three other F-35As for anti-fighter battle training.
Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya told reporters the cause of the disappearance was not immediately known. He said 12 other F-35s at the Misawa base would be grounded.
The pilot is a man in his 40s, Iwaya said.
Japan started deploying the expensive U.S.-made F-35s since last year, part of its plan to bolster its defense spending and weapons capability in the coming years to counter potential threats from North Korea and China.
Under guidelines approved in December, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government plans to buy 147 F-35s, including 105 F-35As, costing about 10 billion yen ($90 million) each.