Fake News: The Digital Pandemic

With a surge in circulation of fake news amidst this tensed environment created by Covid-19, it became imperative for the law enforcement agencies to formulate a proper set of guidelines to curb this issue. This following article provides a detailed description on this issue in the light of the guideline released by Bureau of Police Research and Development, to prevent circulation of any false information or video. Features and significance of this guideline will be critically studied in the initial part of this article, and eventually in the later part the existing laws and the initiatives by the government will be analysed whilst providing feasible solutions to curb this evil.

With the growth of Digitization and its influence on people, the incidents of fake news or yellow journalism are also increasing drastically. Either fake news is published without any conclusive evidence, with catchy and manipulative language that the readers fall prey to it or they are the fabrication of a piece of news, made to fulfil some financial or political agenda. Concern over fake news has been global, be it the bombardment of fake news during the 2016 Presidential Elections in the US or the misleading URLs during COVID-19 for financial gain, these circumstances are the indicators that we need a better regulatory mechanism to deal with this issue. Now that the people are becoming vulnerable due to Covid-19 there has been a surge in the spread of fake news in these hard times. While there are multiple types of reports on fake news, the major one on which we will be focussing in this article is the spreading of fake URLs to mislead people who wanted to donate to PM-CARES fund, which was originally devised by PMO to collect money from the public and donate it to the Central ministry for the management during COVID-19.

During the past couple of months, there has been a spread of several portals which happens to be a doppelgänger of the account of PM-CARES fund, deceiving people who want to make generous contributions to help fight the battle with corona. Hence, it became quite imperative for the government and other law enforcement agencies to make sure that these donations reach the actual destination. With this vision, Bureau of Police Research and Development came out with a step-by-step guide for the law enforcement agencies to identify, cross-check and curb fake news and other materials, which intend to spread hatred or mislead people in the wake of COVID-19 pandemic. Following is an overview of that guide:

  1. It suggests the officers to read the article in depth and go beyond the ‘outrageous’ headlines which are intended to capture the attention of people.
  2. It has mentioned about a possible circumstance of fake news where the visuals attached to the news are incoherent with the theme.
  3. Links or articles which seem to be imitating an original one might contain spelling mistakes and flawed sentences.
  4. The guideline also suggests the agencies to conduct a background check about the author of such articles.
  5. Use of open domain tools is suggested to collect information about fake news or videos.
  6. Articles, videos or websites which have been reported by several users might be one of those misleading tools.

The extensive spread of fake news is devastating to both public as well as the government. It is one of those potent yet elusive traps which can gravely affect individuals and the society as a whole. Therefore, the issue of fake news has been one of the major administrative concerns during this pandemic because any instability or violence caused due to this would make the situation worse. Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, director at Reuters Institute for the study of journalism believes that the menace of fake news might have a much more-grave impact India than in the west[1], because being one of the largest markets for most of the social media platforms, India experiences a rapid spread of any controversial news among the general public. Moreover, the people in India also happen to be politically sensitive, which means that any false news or claim can influence political opinion and is capable of creating pressure on the government.

In furtherance of this discussion, it is high time to expand the engagement of cyber laws in handling this pandemic of fake news. Even though Rule 3(9) of IT rules 2011 directs all intermediaries to deploy technology-based tools to weed out the unlawful or inappropriate content which might mislead the public in general, it fails to impose liability on intermediaries[2]. Section 79[3] of IT act 2000 provides these intermediaries a safe zone, where they can seek immunity from claims arising for liability against any content whose inception and transmission was away from their control even after observing due diligence. This decade-old amendment failed to take into consideration the ever-growing technology and its repercussions. Section 505(1)(b) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) covers a broader picture —it has a penal provision for imprisonment of up to 6 years along with fine for spreading false and mischievous news material that results in ‘fear or panic to the public, or to any part of the public whereby any person may be persuaded to commit an offence against the State or against the public tranquillity’.

In the last couple of years, there have been some initiatives by the government as well as the social media platforms to control this menace. During the time when a protest against CAA and abrogation of Article 370 was at the peak, several states including J&K, Uttar Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh along with a couple of other states witnessed internet shutdown, with a vision to maintain public order and stability and to nip the fake news at its bud, but it also wrong if the government feels the need to stop rumours and other such news articles on a particular platform, it should block the application or website rather than taking down the internet services completely. Shutting off the internet connection doesn’t mean that the discussion is discarded, rather it just delayed the same. Anyway, it was a high time where the government realized that any piece of news is capable of inciting violence and hatred and can disrupt the entire state management. Thus the Indian ministry of information and broadcasting launched a FACT (find, assess, create and target) checking module to curb the circulation of news which are not verified and supported with facts and pieces of evidence. But anyway it would not be wrong to say that social media are much more enthusiastic than the government to curb the spread of fake news, reportedly Facebook is working with over 60 fact-checking websites to censure and remove the information which they find violative of the guidelines made by the company itself, the best part is Facebook is extending this initiative to all social media platforms it owns including WhatsApp which is infamous for circulating fake news. Apart from this, Google has also started a verification platform for regulating the spread of fake news.

Even after the multiple initiatives by the social media platforms, the problem still persists. This happens mainly due to the lack of awareness among people in general and the absence of a proper set of laws to tackle the issue. It is high time to realise that we need to criminalize the act of spreading fake news (punishment varying with the intensity of the said piece), on the lines of Singapore’s Protection from Falsehoods and Manipulation laws. Even though this idea has received criticism on the grounds of freedom of speech and other basic rights, the idea has some sort of merit attached to it. Hence, in a developing country like India where technological advancement is running to the peak, it becomes very important to coordinate with the cyber cell and penalise the ones spreading hatred and misleading people. While learning from Singapore, it should be made sure that the law focusses primarily in protecting the citizens from the dangers of fake news and shall not interfere with the right to freedom of speech, to be more precise we need to find a fine balance. And if the civil rights are taken into account, it should also be realised that Fake news, clickbait and malicious URLs also interferes with the right of a user to access authentic and verified information.

By the above discussion, we can say that the censoring of content on social media without undermining the internet and media freedom is something we should aim for. It will also require public education, enacting specific laws and establishment of quasi-judicial bodies to deal with fake news and false information. The cyber cell should promote such type of education among the general public to help them distinguish between fake and real news. There is a long way to go, but fortunately, there is no dead-end but a ray of light coming in this tunnel.

[1]India’s disinformation war more complex than in the west, The quint (May 16, 2020 3 PM), https://www.thequint.com/news/india/media-coverage-disinformation-in-india-interview-rasmus-nielsen

[2] Section 2(w), Information technology act, 2000

[3] Section 79, Information technology act, 2000


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Aryan Raj Kashyap
IMG-20200606-WA0016

Aryan is a second-year student at NALSAR University of Law. He has an inclination towards technology laws and Company law.

Unnat Akhouri

Unnat

Unnat is a second-year student at NALSAR University of Law. He is profoundly interested in Technology laws, fintech and IPR.

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