Fake News. Know it. Fight it.

From L – R: Mihir Sharma, Columnist, Bloomberg View; Pavan Duggal, Founder & Chairman of International Commission on Cyber Security Law; Rema Rajeshwari, District Police Chief, Jogulamba, Gadwal District, Telangana; Govindraj Ethiraj, Founder, BOOM and IndiaSpend.

The pattern of Fake News leading to mob lynching has regularized itself at an alarming rate into the social fabric of the country.

A standard chain of events occurs: A random picture or video of a person committing a heinous crime is circulated to everyone in a local community accompanied by an incriminating text or audio warning people to beware of the “criminal” and follow a certain set of steps to ensure their safety.

Soon after the circulation of the message, a frenzy ensues in the local community and one of two consequences crystallize: The instilling of a sense of fear in the community forcing them to live under a constant threat or the incorrect recognition of a person as the criminal from the video and their lynching.

This phenomenon that has recently gained momentum across India is one recognized as “Fake News”.

The problem of Fake News is a contemporary one. It gained a place in the global discourse after the 2016 US Presidential Elections but the direct harm and havoc caused by rampant spread of Fake News in India over the last 18 months has been unprecedented.

Govindraj Ethiraj, Founder of BOOM and IndiaSpend, while moderating a public session on “Fake News. Know it. Fight it.” organized by Ananta Centre on 16th August, 2018, in New Delhi elaborated upon the nature of Fake News and its current manifestation in India.

According to Govind, Fake News has existed in India for a couple of years but the carriers through which it was proliferated has never been as efficient before. Earlier Facebook, text messages and other websites would be the carriers but recently it has occurred primarily via “the alternative universe of WhatsApp”. India boasts over 220 million users on WhatsApp and this widespread usage of a common communication tool mixed with a high degree of digital illiteracy and rumours that are contextualized in the local dialects makes this problem a multi-faceted one.

The primary carrier of Fake News in the Indian context being WhatsApp is a crucial factor not only because of its reach but also because of its “end to end encryption” feature.  A feature that makes traceability of a rumour close to impossible and dilutes the purpose of beginning any investigation altogether.

Rema Rajeshwari as the District Police Chief of Jogulamba, Gadwal District, Telangana has had to deal with the problem of WhatsApp based Fake News on several occasions. Over multiple cases, she came to realize the imprudence of assigning limited resources into tracing the perpetrator while simultaneously attempting to placate an enraged mob. The prevention, she surmised, could not be the temporary fix of debunking each rumor but has to be a long-term cure. Her innovative attempt was to initiate an educational campaign in the form of regular cultural outreach by the Police Department under her command. The officers made 4 songs in local dialects and performed them in cultural shows across villages, educating people about the signs of any information being fake. According to Rema, this was both “relatable and incited trust” in the people most affected by the problem proving to be the most effective tool.   

Rema’s sentiments were echoed by Mihir Sharma, a columnist at Bloomberg View. Mihir is of the belief that the Indian Fake News problem is not “just a policing issue but an educational and social reform issue.” Had it been merely a policing issue, he says, China with its digital regulation policies and laws would have been able to prevent all forms of Fake News and would not be currently facing multiple financial scams.   

While China stands on one end of the legal spectrum of the digital space, India stands on the other. The former has barricaded its digital grid and the latter has a severe deficiency of cyber space laws.

Currently, the Indian digital legislation is mostly encompassed under the Information Technology Act. An act that does not even once mention the words “Fake News” as it was last amended in 2008. The failure of the law to recognize the problem of Fake News is reflective of the fact that “this problem has still not dawned upon the collective conscience of the nation” as stated by Pavan Duggal, Founder & Chairman of International Commission on Cyber Security Law.

According to Pavan, there is a dire need for legislation regarding the regulation of Fake News in the country. In the current context, at the very least, there is a need for legal provisions in the cyber laws that would hold the “intermediaries” of the problem to account. WhatsApp, one of the many social media platforms, would be an example of an intermediary.

Up until March 2015, the IT Act included Section 66 A, which essentially stated: if one published or sent any piece of information via a computer or any other communication device which was grossly offensive or menacing in character or if one was to send any information known to be false with the purpose of spreading ill-will, hatred or enmity; that would be an offense punishable by 3 years imprisonment or Rs. 5 lakhs. In March 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that certain provisions with Section 66 A were violative of the fundamental right to freedom of speech. Some trace the spread of the Fake News phenomenon in India as an indirect consequence of the eradication of Section 66 A of the IT Act.

The fact though remains, for all the disorder it may have caused, the problem of Fake News is still in its nascent stages. Many questions about it thus remain unstudied and unanswered: How do you define Fake News; What facets does Fake News comprise of; Does paid content in traditional print and electronic media count as Fake News; What is the degree of damage a rumor supposed to cause before being branded as Fake News; What about alternate news and alternative facts;

For all the questions that may remain unraised, there exists an unsaid consensus - false news and rumors that seem to directly incite mob violence and other physical harm need to be dealt immediately while society ponders this new problem.

At a Macro level, India needs to figure out socio-cultural mechanisms that curb the violent tendencies of a mob. Laws that put “intermediaries” to account without compromising the fundamental rights to free speech and privacy (and others) of the citizens.

This problem isn’t just one of mob lynching. It’s a multi-faceted problem of information, belief and fear that requires an inter-departmental solution. Firstly, a top-down approach to tackle the “Fake News” menace would be by formal legal provision and ascription of penalties.  Secondly, a bottom-up strategy of instilling trust within communities and building faith between people and the government.

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