• On Twitter, researchers discovered evidence of political parties using bots to boost their follower counts, or to retweet, like, or share content that supported their campaigns. Automated accounts allow you to reach more audiences, and if you can generate trends, you can generate truth.
  • The recent Twitter purge of fake accounts, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi lost 300,000 followers and Congress chief Rahul Gandhi lost 17,000, speaks of how widespread bot activity is among India’s political candidates.
  • Even during some state elections this year, WhatsApp reportedly housed rampant misinformation from multiple political actors. With over 200 million active users, WhatsApp is the most widely-used messaging app in India.

Current mechanism

  • Right now the only mechanism is Section 126 and EC instructions on paid news. The section 126 prohibits displaying any election matter by means, inter alia, of television or similar apparatus, during the period of 48 hours before the hour fixed for conclusion of poll in a constituency”.

What is fake news?

  • Fake news is a type of yellow journalism that consists of deliberate misinformation or hoaxes spread via the traditional print, broadcasting news media, or via Internet-based social media. Fake news is written and published with the intent to mislead in order to gain financially or politically, often with sensationalist, exaggerated, or patently false headlines that grab attention.

The main driving force behind fake news remains

  • Getting easy viewership through sensational news e.g. dubbing foreign prisoners as spies or terrorists without any proof
  • Directed towards a particular organization or person with an intention to either glorify it or to bring malice. Eg. a news channel was established to defend the accused in Jessica Lal murder case.

Dangers of fake news

  • Political: Swaying or polarising public opinion. Example Recent American election, UP elections where certain facts are quoted out of context/partially. Significant impact on the nature of polity.
    • Democracy in peril as informed voting decision is affected leading to wrong leaders coming to power.
    • Need for level playing field for candidates to prevent any adverse impact.
  • Religious: Promoting religious ideologies. Glorifying one religion while despising others Ex. Right wing violence meted out by Gaurakshaks leads to religious polarisation and communal unrests.
  • Criminal: Sensationalising crimes by blowing them out of proportion. Misleads people rather than making them aware and Instills irrational fears.
  • Financial: Fake news has also been used to dupe gullible people financially. The reach of news has given chit fund schemes an altogether new arena as well as has introduced the concept of online fraud through spam mails.
  • National integration: It hampers spirit of common brotherhood and raises intolerance. E.g. 2012 mass exodus of North-Eastern people from Bangalore on false online threats.
  • Image: Over the time it shapes the thinking of society at large. Portrayal of India as an unsafe destination for women by international media has created a false image of a nation.

What is needed?

  • Independent press: Independent, trusted and effective press regulation. Regulation to ensure opinion polls and exit polls show the truth based on rational criteria put in public domain.
  • Social media utility: Mainstream media must use social media tools intensively in order to defend the truth, present the correct information and balance opinions.
  • Curb media ownership: We need an open debate on the impact of media concentration on our democracy and wider culture. There should be clear limits on media ownership so that powerful proprietors with vested interests are not allowed to dominate the news agenda.
  • Define fake news legally. Heavy punitive measures for whosoever violates the said definition.
  • There should be grievance redressal mechanisms and arbitration spaces to resolve issues.
  • Digital media literacy among people to increase scrutiny and feedbacks of the content.
  • Technical solutions that assess the credibility of information circulating online are also needed. Eg: Fact checking organisations like Factly and Webgoof.
  • Proactive EC: Internet major Google and social media giants Twitter and Facebook have assured the Election Commission that they will not allow their platforms to be used for anything which affects the purity of polls during campaign period.
    • The companies have also assured the poll watchdog that political advertisements will be flagged, including the amount spent, so that expenditure can also be accounted for during campaign period, the Chief Election Commissioner said.
    • Google will establish a system that will allow it to share with the EC details about the expenditure incurred on its platforms.
  • Civil society: Vigilance to ensure media – both traditional and social media are not propagating fake news. Eg) NGOs like ADR.
  • New guidelines proposed under Section 79 IT Act
    • Section classify social media platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook as intermediaries which act mostly as facilitators without actively involved in creating/modifying information
    • New proposed guidelines seek to increase their accountability
    • Mandatory corporate entity in India
    • Compliance with Indian laws
    • Mandatory grievance officer in India who will respond to complaints within prescribed time.
    • Companies should trace origin of fake messages
  • Rajiv Gauba panel : Make social media sites accountable for blocking fake news
  • Data localisation: To control fake news as suggested by Justice Srikrishna committee
  • New government agency: for monitoring fake news
  • Other government guidelines:
    • Press Council of India and News Broadcasters Association to be made more responsible for fake news and complaint redressal in print and electronic media respectively
    • 15 days time bound redressal
    • Accreditation cancelled for 6 months for 1st violation
    • Users creating fake content to be punished under IPC

Beyond Fake News Project

  • The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has devised a new campaign that is aimed at fighting back against disinformation and fake news. It lays a major focus on global media literacy, including workshops and debates in countries like India.

Best practices

  • In Singapore, a parliamentary committee formed to deliberate on fake news and its causes, consequences and countermeasures has recommended the country’s government to bring in a legislation that would encourage social media platforms to demand greater transparency and accountability in the flow of content.
  • Germany has also compelled social media companies to remove content that violates provisions of its criminal code, encouraging erring on the side of censorship.
  • A proposed French law gives judges emergency powers to take down fake news during sensitive periods. Judges are required to order a takedown within 48 hours — too short a span to determine what is “fake”. Such a law was also introduced in Malaysia and is still not repealed.

Practice question

The greater interconnectedness over ICT technologies poses challenges to the traditional electoral processes. Discuss the precautions required against fake news which are tampering the electoral behaviour. (200 words)