[op-ed snap] Regulating fake news in India is tough

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Mains Paper 3: Internal Security | Challenges to internal security through communication networks, role of media & social networking sites in internal security challenges

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important:

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Context

 

  1. The proliferation of technology, cheap smartphones, and reasonable data rates has enabled the democratization of online content.
  2. The flip side is that the speed of content distribution has made traditional journalistic controls of verification unfeasible.
  3. Thus, the unfettered flow of speech has become vulnerable to the boom of unverified information.
  4. Recent incidents in India are indicative of potential harm, ranging from political misinformation to a spate of lynching.

FAKE NEWS- a vogue term

  1. As the incident of withdrawal of the fake news circular indicates, the free speech implications at hand demand a cautionary approach. A preliminary issue is a difficulty in defining fake news.
  2. While misinformation spread through social media has captured public attention, the fake news itself is an amorphous category, including –
  • misleading news,
  • unverified content,
  • hoaxes, and
  • fabricated pictures in the nature of internet memes.
  1. The assessment may involve distinguishing mere poor journalism from deliberate attempts to spread misinformation.
  2. Any top-down regulation that defines fake news simply as containing falsehood may be setting itself up for failure.

What defines the boundary of a news?

  1. It is easy for such regulation to fall into the trap of assuming the existence of a single and verifiable version of the truth.
  2. Apart from cases of patent and absolute falsehood, the line between truth and untruth may be difficult to draw.
  3. The news is generally a mix of facts and opinions that are not amenable to neat segregation.

Pre-Censorship is Impossible

  1. 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.
  2. On the one hand, such legislation could divest individuals of autonomy.
  3. On the other, it could bolster the power of the government to censor opinions it is uncomfortable with.
  4. 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

  1. A cautionary approach warrants avoiding overarching regulation in the form of anti-fake news legislation, irrespective of the benignity of its motivations.
  2. 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.
  3. This can breed a chilling effect and self-censorship.

A decentralized three-point agenda to address the fake news

Implementation of the above three prongs will not only be a sustainable response to the fake news but will also strike the necessary balance with free speech considerations.

  • To ensure critical media literacy, with critical digital literacy as a component.
  1. This would focus on encouraging individuals to learn the skills required to navigate the internet and question the content they are exposed to.
  2. Users should understand the limitations of digital media.
  3. 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
  1. 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.
  2. The role of the district administration and local community leaders is key in this regard.
  3. 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
  1. 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.
  2. They should account for existing speech offences to avoid overlap.
  3. 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.
Social Media: Prospect and Challenges
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