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.
Ananta Centre organized a discussion on “Fake News. Know it. Fight it.” on the 16th of August 2018, at New Delhi. The pattern of Fake News leading to mob violence has woven itself into the social fabric of the country, making this an important discussion to have.
Govindraj Ethiraj, Founder of BOOM and IndiaSpend, moderated the session. Other participants included Rema Rajeshwari, District Police Chief of Jogulamba, Gadwal District, Telangana; Mihir Sharma, Columnist Bloomberg View and, Pavan Duggal, Founder & Chairman of International Commission on Cyber Security Law.
The discussion threw up data points that put the conversation in a different perspective. India boasts over 220 million users on WhatsApp. Widespread usage along with a high degree of digital illiteracy and rumours that are contextualized in the local dialects makes the problem of fake news a multi-faceted one. WhatsApp is a crucial factor not only because of its reach but also because of its “end to end encryption” feature. This makes traceability of a rumour close to impossible and dilutes the purpose of beginning any investigation altogether.
There is enough evidence to show policing does not always work. China with its digital regulation policies and laws has not been able to prevent all forms of Fake News and is 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 falls mostly under the Information Technology Act, which was last amended in 2008 and therefore does not even mention Fake News.
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 panelists felt that there was need for interventions at the macro level too. We need socio-cultural mechanisms to curb the violent tendencies of a mob. Laws that hold “intermediaries” (such as WhatsApp) to account without compromising the fundamental rights of the citizens are needed.
There is also a need for a bottom-up strategy of instilling trust within communities and building faith between people and the government. Panelist Rema Rajeshwari shared that her department had initiated an educational campaign under her watch. The Police Officers made four 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 proved to be an effective tool as it was both “relatable and elicited trust” in the people most affected by the problem.