Indian Ink
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Indian Ink

Going nuts to create fake news

Dissecting a fake news article to learn what makes it tick

70 years old and still climbing strong (Photo @babulous )

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This is a companion piece to my ‘To spot fake news…’ post that reference the CAA and the Farm Bills, two new legislations in India that have generated a lot of heated commentary. One of the reasons for this brouhaha is there’s a lot of fake news muddying up the waters. So I thought it might be fun to dissect one of these fake news articles to understand how it works.

Anyway, one of the provisions in the Farm Bills gives farmers the freedom to sell anywhere, and bypass the middleman. I couldn’t understand why that would upset the farmers. So I googled up ‘why are the farmers protesting.’ Here’s an article I found, published by one of India’s newspapers.

The writer does not bother to hide his disapproval of the government. Fair enough, as everyone is entitled to their own opinion. But where it stops being fair is when he quotes the tweets of another writer to prove his point that getting rid of the middleman is bad for farming.

The problem is he quotes the tweets without bothering to verify if they are factually true (they aren’t). It seems that journalistic integrity is no longer as important as proving your point. Or maybe, journalists have begun to believe that if you can’t beat the wave of fake news, you might as well join them. I’m appending below the original tweets, which the writer has quoted as text at the end of his article.

Seriously, using coconuts to prove the Farm Bills are evil is simply nuts.

On the surface, the tweets seem quite believable, don’t they? That’s what makes fake news so insidious and dangerous.

Why I think this fake news story is relevant is because it shows how a crafty writer can give a spin on a complex issue and take his readers for a ride. Farming has a vast number of variables that make it a very complicated and unpredictable business. It’s not something you can understand and comment about by just watching the news on TV or reading a couple of news articles.

What are the tweets not saying? Both the original article and tweet have a bias against the ruling government, obvious in ‘unowhat’ and the last tweet. Secondly, they are avoiding the fact that coconut farming in Kerala is a tough business, and the Farmers Acts has nothing to do with that.

Misleading the readers What the writer would like us to take out from the inclusion of the tweeted message is that the Farmers Act ruined the coconut farmers of Kerala. That’s just not true.

The truth is a lot more complicated as there are lot more factors at play, resulting in many permutations and combinations to the farming business.

I took up this particular story because I live in Kerala, and though I’m not a farmer selling coconuts by the quintal, I do occasionally sell a few of the surplus coconuts that grow in the trees around my house.

Fact#1: The journalist’s claim that the Coconut Board was abolished is simply isn’t true. However, I don’t think the Coconut Board is involved in buying coconuts and leaves it to cooperative societies like KeraFed to support farmers by procuring coconuts if needed, which is one of the many services they provide. So was this what the lady meant when she said Coconut Board?

All the lady needed to do was check her facts before tweeting. It took me all of two minutes on Google to figure the above facts. Lazy journalism? Or a deliberate attempt to mislead? You decide.

Fact#2: I don’t know about that ₹40/coconut price quoted in the article. Maybe possible for large nuts. Or maybe coconut prices may have fallen since when that article was written a few months ago. The current price for consumers at a grocery is around ₹25-30/nut.

Fact#3: I spoke to an actual coconut farmer to hear his side of the story. He had a different take as he says selling tender coconuts is now more profitable.
Old model, ripe coconut (per nut): Farmer ₹15; Labour plucking, dehusking & transport ₹6; commission ₹4; Consumer ₹25–28.
New model, tender coconut: Farmer ₹12 (more tender coconuts harvested); Labour, plucking, slicing off top ₹4; Commission ₹14; Consumer ₹30

Fact#4: Farming in Kerala is tough due to the high labor costs. My parents used to own a coconut farm many years ago but sold it off for this very reason. They switched to rubber plantations, which is a cash crop but eventually quit farming for good because of the militant labor which is an ingrained part of Kerala’s culture. I don’t think there are too many large dedicated coconut farms left in Kerala. These days, most farms tend to be smallholdings with multiple crops like bananas, coconuts, pineapples, and diverse vegetables.

Fact#5: Coconut tree climbing is a specialized skill. It was once dominated by a community of coconut tree climbers (Thandaans). Not surprisingly, the next generation isn’t taking to the profession. So it’s becoming harder day by day to find people who will harvest your coconuts. Recently, I saw a guy using a special mechanical device to climb trees. But it’s a novelty.

Innovative device to climb the looming palms

We have a guy who drops in once a month to harvest the coconuts in the few trees growing around our house, which is common in Kerala where most people still live in villas. He’s 70 years old but effortlessly climbs the tall trees. He charges ₹70–100 per tree, and I don’t think he bothers about insurance.

Did I say he is 70 years old?

On coconut harvest days, we also hire a manual laborer whose rate is ₹800/day to help the tree climber. He does the de-husking of the nuts as part of his daily work. If we harvest more nuts than we can consume, we sell them to the local supermarket who pays us ₹25/nut. We have eight trees that yield about 150 nuts. We keep 50 and sell 100 for ₹2500. After paying off the climber, his helper, and the transport, there’s usually not much left.

Fact#6: Coconut farming profitability can vary wildly by location. This is because the major cost component is labor. This varies from state to state and is lower in rural areas. I have a friend who owns a picturesque 2-acre farmhouse just across the Kerala-Tamilnadu border.

Picturesque farmhouse on the Kerala -Tamilnadu border

This is a rural area so the cost of plucking is much lower at ₹2 per nut (it’s per nut and not per tree). Unlike in urban Tamilnadu, where the rate is comparable to Kerala at Rs 100/tree. A few months ago, I was at this farm when my friend harvested a crop of around 500–1000 nuts from the many coconut trees on her farm.

Coconut harvest at the farm

The coconut tree climber’s ₹2/nut fee does not include dehusking. So we did the dehusking ourselves and carted it off to the local supermarket where they gave us about ₹15–18/nut. I think my friend made a few thousand rupees or so for all that effort, which barely covered the costs. This despite us having tackled most of the manual labor in the job (dehusking and transportation).

The next month, the monkeys stole all her coconuts.

As I said, coconut farming in Kerala is a tough and complicated business with unpredictable factors. My point is the situation is in no way aggravated by the Farmers Acts as those two journalists implied.

Was that lazy journalism or confirmation bias or a deliberate attempt to mislead readers? I will leave it to you to decide.

Two things are clear.

Fake news is here to stay.

Secondly, sorting out the truth from fake news is fast becoming an essential skill for the human species. If we don’t master this skill, our species will lose all the amazing benefits of living in an era that puts an incredible amount of information at our fingertips.

Acquiring this skill is not easy. You can start by trying to listen to what’s not being said.



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