In last 1 year at least 20 individuals have been lynched or beaten to death in incidents across India, where rumours on WhatsApp have inspired vigilante mobs to swarm visitors accused of being child kidnappers. Dozens more have been injured in similar attacks.
Fake news refers to the deliberate creation of misinformation or hoaxes spread via traditional print and broadcast news media or online social media shaping the belief of people around the nation and world.
What gives rise to the fake news?
- Lack of regulation – The online platforms, unlike the mainstream media, do not fall under comprehensive regulation. A number of online news/information portals are being set up due to the lack of proper entry barriers. The lack of binding rules and the ability to keep owners and editors private, offers a larger scope for wrongdoing in case of online platforms.
- Communal polarisation – The growing polarisation of society on ideological lines has made the job of spreading fake news easier. Also, the spread of hatred-inducing content among leaders/groups of the opposing ideologies, further deepens the prevailing communal hatred.
- Reach – In the past, communal violence in India was more a localised affair. However, in recent days it is extensively being triggered through the Internet on a much larger scale. The online and mobile platforms serve like nodal agencies distributing unverified information.
- Quick gains – Spreading false news is becoming a way to make advertising money through click baits. In India, numerous sites are being set up to commercialise fake news with click-bait headlines. Users are enticed with multiple link pages to click and continue reading making the content go viral.
- Cheap data plans – The proliferation of technology, cheap smartphones, and reasonable data rates has enabled the democratization of online content. The flip side is that the speed of content distribution has made traditional journalistic controls of verification unfeasible.
Why is fake news dangerous?
- People’s faith in social, print and electronic media reduces which could affect the benefits of these Media.
- It can lead to violence between two or more communities thereby creating enmity and hatred between them.
- It can disturb the social fabric of the society and tensions among communities persists for long times.
- It reduces the tendencies of cooperation between different communities.
- Political parties try to gain political advantages by polarizing the voter’s mind which further intensifies the tensions between different sections of society.
- Politics of development takes back seat and communal tendencies emerge in politics.
- In its purest form, fake news is completely made up, manipulated to resemble credible journalism and attract maximum attention and, with it, advertising revenue.
- Political campaigning has progressed from mere appeals in the name of identity or loyalty or tall promises to something akin to psychological warfare. Parties that master the tools of such psych ops have a distinct edge over those stuck in the traditional mud. Fake news spreads on social media.
How can we control the fake news menace?
Pre-Censorship is Impossible
- Pre-censorship of news and information, while being virtually impossible due to the speed of content creation, will also violate the guarantee of free speech under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution.
- On the one hand, such legislation could divest individuals of autonomy.
- On the other, it could bolster the power of the government to censor opinions it is uncomfortable with.
- Any screening in the context of social media applications such as WhatsApp could also violate the fundamental right to privacy recognized by the Supreme Court.
Self- Censorship can work
- A cautionary approach warrants avoiding overarching regulation in the form of anti-fake news legislation, irrespective of the benignity of its motivations.
- Entrusting a judge, the state or companies like Facebook with the task of making an evaluation of veracity will facilitate judicial, government or private censorship.
- This can breed a chilling effect and self-censorship.
A decentralized three-point agenda to address fake news
- To ensure critical media literacy, with critical digital literacy as a component.
- This would focus on encouraging individuals to learn the skills required to navigate the internet and question the content they are exposed to.
- Users should understand the limitations of digital media.
- Full Fact and Facebook’s toolkit offer useful suggestions about this. Design changes to social media platforms that flag content can also be incorporated.
- To nurture a general culture of scepticism among citizens towards information
- Good practices, such as verifying the source of the news and corroboration with related news, ought to be advanced in schools and through public education campaigns.
- The role of the district administration and local community leaders is key in this regard.
- Heartening examples such as the Satyameva Jayate programme in Kannur schools and initiatives by the superintendent of police in Gadwal demonstrate the potential of such an approach.
- Limited Legal Interventions can be explored
- In a limited set of situations, such as when there is threat to life or national security, targeted and proportionate legal interventions can be explored.
- They should account for existing speech offences to avoid overlap.
- Despite their own flaws, existing provisions on hate speech, sedition and defamation already deal with certain kinds of harm that may be substantially similar to those posed by fake news.
Other steps Which Government can take
- The government must take the initiative to make all sections of the population aware of the realities of this information war and evolve a consensus to fight this war. It must also take strict action
- News being spread using chatbots and other automated pieces of software should automatically be selected for special screening. Ordinary consumers of news can play a big role by, first, waking up to the reality that all they read on WhatsApp and Twitter is not the gospel truth, and then, by refusing to pass on what they cannot independently verify with other sources.
- Websites that mimic well-known, credible media outlets in their name should be exposed with the vigour with which jokes are shared on social media.
- Government should have independent agency to verify the data being circulated in social and other media. The agency should be tasked with presenting real facts and figures.
- Government should have mechanism for immediately issuing of notice against sites/people/agencies involved in spreading fake news.
- There should be a provision of effective balances and check of filtering fake posts before it getting viral.
- Social media websites should be made accountable of such activities so that it becomes their responsibility to have better controlling restricting the spread of fake news.
- Government should take active measures for promoting awareness among people about fake news and their consequences.
- Government should enlist penal provisions to perpetrators of fake news if it causes violence or deaths.
- Government should make mandatory for Print and Electronic media to have internal mechanism for verifying incidents, facts and figures.
- Public should verify the accuracy and of reliability of any news or data either from government or any independent agency specifically involved in such task.
- Public should not blindly trust any sensitive news and should not forward it to others.
- Public should inform concerned department about any fake post as soon as they come across. They should act as active vigilant for maintaining peace and harmony in the society.
- NGO’s and other civil society groups can play important role in spreading awareness about the ill effects of fake news.
- In the post-truth world, digitisation and fake news has become a deadly combo. Discuss. What steps can be taken to counter the menace?