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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 45, New Delhi, October 24, 2020

Social Media and Fake News | D.K. Giri & Maria Khan

Saturday 24 October 2020

by D.K. Giri & Maria Khan

The internet euphemistically called social media is a wonderful invention and a powerful tool for connection and communication. A vast number of people outside the mainstream media can use social media for various purposes- sharing information, conversations, group interaction, branding, relationships and so on. One can reach and engage with the target audience irrespective of their locations. It is also a powerful tool for social and political mobilization. In countries where the traditional media is gagged, the social media can be used for information dissemination and mobilisation. In countries like Malaysia, elections were fought through social media as the other media was restricted by the government. In 2012 there was a brutal assault on a nursing student in India. A huge mobilisation was instantly done just by the use of social media. This incident is infamously remembered as Nirbhaya case.

Likewise, the rise of Aam Aadmi Party that broke the mould of politics in the State of Delhi was due to the smart use of social media. Almost all political parties use social media for campaigning. There are professional agencies to create content for social media, provide the huge data bank of cellphone users and help to spread the information. The popularity of leaders and heads of governments is measured by the size of their following on Twitter, Facebook, Linkdin and Instagram etc. The young Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacintha Ardene is known to be using all the platforms of social media.

Ironically, social media is used for sending out necessary, educative and critical information and at the same time, it is used for spreading misinformation or fake news. So social media is useful or harmful depending on how we manage it. There are instances across the world for making hate speeches, generating social conflicts and engineering violence through social media. Several countries have set up social media watchdogs and mechanism for punishing the perpetrators of malicious propaganda through social media. In New Zealand, in 2019, following the mosque attack at Christchurch, the government asked the social media companies to remove abhorrent violent matter.

The fake news is spread through edited videos, memes, unverified advertisements and rumours. Evidently these cause serious problems with a potential of resulting in mob violence as has been observed in India and elsewhere. According to Reuters Institute of Study of Journalism, this problem is more challenging in India than the West simply because of its huge population. In 2012, there were 137 million internet users in India. In 2019, it reached 600 plus million. India is the largest market for Whatsapp with over 230 million users. It is also one of the main platforms on which fake news is spread. The problems is that the receivers seem to believe anything sent to them over social media for want of awareness. India is yet to devise a media policy for verification of news.

There are organisations which spread fake news and there are others that seek to prevent the circulation of fake news. OP India a right-wing online news outlet that creates and circulates a lot of misinformation. There are IT cells affiliated to political parties that are alleged to spread fake news against adversarial political parties and other opponents. On the other hand, Alt Fact Check, a website is devoted to verifying search online trends and preventing misinformation.

Recently, a war of words between the Congress MP Manish Tiwari and BJP IT Cell occurred following a letter Tiwari wrote to managers of Facebook. BJP IT Cell accused the Congress leader of using lobbyists to influence the social media site etc. In a counter-attack, Tiwari alleged that BJP had dealings with the Facebook and Atlantic Council. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology led by the Congresss Leader Shashi Tharoor summoned the Facebook representatives in India to a sitting of the panel on 2 September 2020. Issues like applying the hate speech rules to BJP politicians and safeguarding citizens rights, prevention of misuse of social media were discussed in the panel. The Standing Committee emphasised on ethical standards of media coverage, thwarting misuse of social media platforms, review of the functioning of Doordarshan channels and review of cybersecurity scenario in India.

So far, there is no provision in Indian law that specifically deals with fake news. However, there are some sections of IPC — 124A, 153A, 292, 295A, 499, 503-05 that criminalise certain forms of speech that may constitute fake news and apply to social media content. However, there is a need for constituting an Ombudsman on social media. If unchecked, the fake news can create havoc in the societies. Unsubstantiated allegations have also to be checked. Rumours are lethal, spread like wildfire, do the damage unless nipped in the bud.

What is peoples’ attitutde towards social media? On the positive side, there is a universal acceptance of social media as a tool for communication which is accessible to many, unlike the mainstream media where the space is small and exclusive. If used nicely, social media can forge solidarity, promote the development and enhance unity at local, regional and even global level. It gives a voice to numerous individuals who cannot otherwise speak their minds. During the pandemic, social media has been an immensely important medium of interaction. We know of a group of lawyers who could immensely contribute to relief and rehabilitation during the pandemic - supply of food material, arranging logistics, sharing authentic information, making necessary connections and so on. All this was done with social media with only a few people undertaking physical movement to reach the targets.

On the downside, as mentioned earlier, on the fake news, rumours and baseless slanders can disturb individual peace and security, social harmony and political strife. It can mislead the voters during elections with false and malicious propaganda. Elections are a major part of a democracy where people exercise their sovereign right as voters to evaluate the potential and performance of the leaders and elect them to the high table in the Assemblies and the Parliament. So if the consent is manufactured and mandate is manipulated, this will imperil democracy. Notably, Twitter has taken steps to spread awareness of the circulation of misleading news with regard to the forthcoming US elections. In Australia, in 2018, the government established the Electoral Integrity Assurance Task Force, made up of representatives from several government agencies. The task for seeks to protect Australia’s democracy against the harmful cyber activity, electoral fraud, and disinformation.

The government has to invent new media policies like linking of the Aadhaar Card to the social media accounts for easy tracking of the people who spread fake news. This should be accompanied with strict monitoring of social media trends, keeping track of the fake accounts, and initiating prosecutions against the offenders. Heartening to note that the Supreme Court has taken serious note of a TV channel that spread malafide information about a particular minority community. The CJI has commented that freedom of speech was the most abused freedom in recent times. The Central government has submitted to the court that there was a need to regulate contents of social media platforms.

One of the problems with social media platforms is that their grievance teams are not able to differentiate between derogatory comments and fare remarks. For instance, sexual harassment comments are deleted and the users are warned but in the cyber bullying cases, grievance teams fail to be judicious. So, it is well-advised that Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, these popular platforms, need to train their grievance teams in line with the culture, ethics, languages and attitudes in various regions.

Curiously, the users are unaware of the cyber laws existing in countries like India. Knowledge of such laws is imperative. Also, the authorities have to make it easy for users to file complaints against the cyberbully. Likewise, there should be stringent laws to block the circulation of fake news, hate speech, conspiracy theories, speculative comments and so on. The Government of India is contemplating action but is at a rudimentary stage. The process needs to be expedited.

Prof. (Dr) D.K. Giri is the Secretary-General of Association for Democratic Socialism, (ADS) New Delhi and Ms. Maria Khan is studying MA in Politics in JMI and a Member of ADS.

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