On 13th August 2020, famous journalist and senior editor of one of India’s most viewed English news channel, tweeted about death of former President of India, Pranab Mukherjee from his twitter handle which has around 8.9 million followers. Pranab Mukherjee being renowned politician and much respected persona across the length and breadth of country, this news spread like wild fire as he was admitted to hospital, three days back for his brain surgery.
Minutes later, Abhijit Mukherjee and Sharmistha Mukherjee clarified that the health of their father is stable and castigated those who were spreading fake news about him. Later on, the journalist also apologised on twitter for being preyed to hoax content.
After this reprehensible episode, the fundamental question pertains that why fake news is being peddled? Why there is no control of any authority over such vicious content which can promulgate riots or which have potential to create law and order problem? Why statutory mechanism can’t have checks on it?
Fake news, is a form of information consisting of deliberate misinformation or hoaxes spread via traditional news media (print and broadcast) or online social media. It is generally used to mislead people to sway public opinion to meet unscrupulous political ends, gaining by creating chaos and for the purpose of setting up particular narrative.
As a fourth pillar of democracy, Media derives powers from Article 19 of the Indian constitution which provides for freedom of speech and expression. It also provides for reasonable restrictions while enjoying this right which are often being ignored. This makes media quite self-regulating autonomous body.
Press Council of India was established under the PCI Act of 1978 for the purpose of preserving the freedom of the press and of maintaining and improving the standards of newspapers and news agencies in India which seems to be failed in its functionality owing to ferocious pace at which fake news being spread.
Other than this no statute explicitly controls misinformation in India. The Information Technology [Intermediaries Guidelines (Amendment) Rules] 2018 proposed attempt to curb fake news but these are criticized for invasion of privacy as one of the rules from it demands for breaking end to end encryption in order to trace the source of fake news.
In 2018, Tamil Nadu state government demanded to linking of social media accounts to 12-digit Aadhar number. But this proposal criticized severely as it needed sensitive individual data to be transferred to private company which is an invasion of privacy.
In November 2019, the ministry of information and broadcasting envisaged to set up a FACT checking module by continuous monitoring of online news sources and publicly visible social media posts. The module planned to work as on four principles of “Find, Assess, Create and Target” (FACT). In the end of 2019, the Press Information Bureau (PIB) set up a fact-checking unit which focuses on verifying news related to the government.
The problem of fake news amplified to its peak when such news are spread via social media platforms. In India, there are more than 600 million active users and more than 230 million active WhatsApp users facilitates easy flow of misinformation.
Facebook partnered with fact checking websites like BOOM and Webqoof to tackle spread of hoax content India. WhatsApp introduced various new measures such as suspending accounts and limiting number of forwards at a time. Google also launched a program to train 8000 journalists in English and six other official Indian languages.
Some countries have enacted statutes to curb fake news and provide for stricter punishment for culprits. Malaysia, France, Germany and some other countries have their respective law to control spreading of fake news. Singapore in 2018 and Mexico in 2019 also joined the row. According to law in Germany, it requires social media sites with more than two million members to “quickly remove hate speech, fake news, and illegal material.” Non-compliance can lead to fines up to 50 million euros. While law in Malaysia prescribe punishment upto six years along with fine and that of law in Singapore provides for punishment upto 10 years.
Such measures to censure fake news sometimes perceived as an attempt to curb free speech and attack on human rights by regulatory authorities. It can be used to curb whistle-blowers and those who expose powerful authorities in good faith. Censorship on information is generally used by autocratic governments and it is perceived as a regressive measure. According to human rights activists the fake news laws in South East Asian countries can be succinctly summed up as “door towards digital authoritarianism.”
Misinformation many times spread intentionally. It can be a “Paid News” to get political leverage like what happened against 2016 US presidential election candidate Hillary Clinton, or it can be a part of yellow journalism which is meant to lure viewers with catchy headlines and confusing them at least if unable to convince. Sometimes “IT cells” of political parties uses this tool for defaming opponents. Populist governments sometimes try to proliferate lies for obliterating their failure stories. And this is mostly done through unofficial wings of ruling party.
The way forward…
Freedom of speech and expression is sacrosanct nature and should not be violated at any cost. Right to receive information is an inherent and fundamental part of the freedom of speech as both are inextricably linked to each other. But at the same time, it must be clear that freedom of speech does not include right to disseminate lies. Unqualified use of this freedom can have distressful outcomes and can exacerbate existing religious, ethnic and racial tensions. Such news can incite violence and foment chaos.
Menace of fake news can also be countered by public awareness like hoax news classes held in 150 government schools in Kerala (particularly in Kannur district). Digital literacy can be a best weapon to fight against digital misinformation. Use of unbiased fact checkers can also bring the change. Responsible people must refrain from making quick comment without checking authenticity of particular news.
So, onus of breaking chain of such vicious misinformation lies not only on government but also on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, mainstream media news channels and Public at large. Snowballing of fake news can only be mitigated with concerted efforts of all stakeholders.