Don’t over-reach on internet controls

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Everyone agrees that fake news is a deadly menace. The spread of false information, purposely crafted to mislead citizens, as opposed to genuine mistakes in news reporting or even just plain old biases, is something that all of us deal with on social media sites every day. The problem is how do we stop it. At a time when fake news rumours have even taken lives – as in the case of two young tourists from Guwahati who were beaten to death in June 2018 by an angry mob of villagers in Assam’s Karbi Anglong district who mistook them to be child-lifters – the government is well within its right to mull options on how to end dangerous rumour-mongering on WhatsApp or Facebook. While asking for more “responsibility and accountability” is understandable when platforms are misused by fake news producers, trying to counter such acts with the threat of potential shutdowns of the platforms themselves may be totally counter-productive.

Such a hard-nosed focus on media companies and their liabilities – as opposed to those that produce and promote such fake news and police forces on the ground who are meant to uphold the law – means that we may end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

The IT secretary’s comments this week, warning multi-national internet giants to “behave in a responsible manner” for swift action on “disturbing” content is only the most recent salvo in a series of steps encapsulating the current hardline view in New Delhi on this issue. It was preceded by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology issuing a notice on fake news to WhatsApp on 3 July, and then a second one on 19 July, as it was dissatisfied with the response. Separately, the department of telecommunications on 18 July wrote to telecom companies and industry associations reportedly asking them to “explore various possible options and confirm how Instagram/Facebook/WhatsApp/Telegram and such other mobile apps can be blocked on internet.”
First, bans never work. While social media platforms are indeed misused by some, they also offer invigorating possibilities of connectivity and growth that simply weren’t possible earlier to millions more. From the Dalit protests in Maharashtra to the LGBT movement against Section 377, social media is the primary medium of mobilisation of our times. It offers an avenue for protest and speaking truth to power in new ways that have irrevocably changed traditional social hierarchies.

While fake news vitiates the political atmosphere, there is even greater risk in government having the powers to shut down an entire media platform on grounds of public order or national security. From the Arab Spring in the Middle East to protests by ex-servicemen on OROP in recent times, social media platforms, by allowing people to communicate with each other, have been crucial enablers of democracy.

This is why thinking of turning them off is problematic because of the fear that a future government fearful of political dissent may misuse such powers. Terms like ‘public order’ and ‘national security’ are often too vague and can potentially be misused for political purposes.

Second, social media has been blamed for spreading fake news rumours that led to lynching cases. This is like blaming telephone companies if people spread rumours in phone conversations. Will we then shut phone networks down too? Rather than blaming the platforms through which information travels, it is far better to pinpoint those who spread the misinformation.

The impulse to blame social media or the messenger, in effect, passes the buck. The real issue in cases of public lynching triggered by fake news is of a breakdown in law and order. That is where our focus must be. Law and order is a state subject under the Constitution. In recent months, the central government has issued several security-related advisories: on untoward incidents in the name of protection of cows on 9 August 2016, on lynching by mobs after rumours of child-lifting on 4 July 2018 and an MHA directive on 23 July to all states for implementing Supreme Court orders on preventing mob violence.

The big question to ask is how effectively have these been implemented by state police forces on the ground? Did relevant police forces in these cases act on time and effectively enough? If not, why not? How many people have since been arrested after these outbreaks of violence?

The minister of state for home affairs recently told Parliament that the central government doesn’t collect specific data on lynching cases. From Bidar in Karnataka to Dimapur in Nagaland, research by TOI from public sources unearthed reports of at least 55 cases of lynching across India between March 2015 and July 2018. These cases occurred across both BJP-ruled states (like Maharashtra, Haryana, Rajasthan) and non-BJP rules ones (Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Delhi, Karnataka). Of these, about 17 were linked to rumours of child-lifting, two were against African student groups and the remaining cases were all linked to issues around cattle transport, beef or religion. While arrests were subsequently made in most of these cases, crucial questions about the effectiveness of law and order in these states must be answered. What we need is better intelligence and rapid responses in policing.

Third, social media platforms must have better flagging mechanisms as well. WhatsApp, for example, now allows its users to see if a message has been forwarded. But, one should also be able to track the originator of a message as well. Accountability cannot be wished away. Twitter recently began a move against fake accounts. Facebook, Google and WhatsApp have started making serious moves against fake news as well. They must do more.

Fourth, in an age of information overload, it is finally up to readers and consumers of social media like us to be more discerning. Creating a culture of looking at the sources of what is flooding our news feeds, whether it has been authenticated at all, and by whom is key in this new mediascape.

This is particularly important at a time when a great deal of fake news created is being attributed to political parties themselves or their affiliates. From the Trumpian diatribes on fake news in Washington to the daily cut and thrust of politics in Delhi, fake news warriors raise the decibels levels in our politics every day. As we head into election season, this din will become even greater.

Finally, at a time when we are promoting Digital India and the knowledge economy, the top-down impulse to clamp down on entire digital platforms for the misuse of a few, instead of targeting the wrong-doers themselves, is lopsided. It risks taking a sledgehammer approach to a problem that is far more complex.

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