Spread of fake news through social media is a serious problem in the country today. We all come across fake news, misinformation or disinformation through videos, memes and through other such digital forms of communication almost on a daily basis. An important cause of the problem is that receivers believe anything sent to them over social media to be true and this happens due to lack of awareness.
The number of Internet users in India has risen from 137 million in 2012 to over 600 million in 2019. With the growth of internet penetration in India, the damage caused due to fake news and rumours on social media platforms has also increased.
India has the largest number of social media users, with 200 million people on WhatsApp, 300 million on Facebook and 250 million on YouTube. TikTok has over 88 million users belonging to India. Indian messaging applications such as ‘Sharechat’ which allows the users to communicate in various languages are also quite popular in the country and has over 40 million Indians using it. These social media platforms are rife with misinformation and fake news.
Fake news and misleading information are shared the most during elections with a view to influencing political choices. Fake news and disinformation were very well prevalent at all levels of society during the Indian general election of 2019. Social media was heavily used by many as a tool of propaganda. The political parties weaponized misinformation and platforms like Whatsapp to influence the political choices of citizens. Even during the CAA protests a lot of fake news were being circulated online creating confusion in the minds of citizens. According to an IANS report, over 5000 social media handles from Pakistan were identified by the Indian security and intelligence agencies as spreading false news, fake videos etc. on CAA.
WhatsApp is India’s most popular messaging application which generates most of the fake news in the country. Fake stories are spread easily through platforms like WhatsApp and can have an extremely dangerous impact.
According to a data journalism website called IndiaSpend, a rumour spread through Whatsapp messages about child kidnappers arriving in different parts of the country has led to 33 deaths of suspected child abductors in 69 incidents of mob lynching since 2017.
In sectarian violence, which took place in Uttar Pradesh six months before the general elections of 2014, 62 people were killed and 50000 people were displaced from their homes. It was found out that a fake video shared on WhatsApp resulted in the violence.
The Government, both at the Centre and State has made various attempts to regulate online content and to control the spread of fake news and disinformation. In July 2018, the Maharashtra Government proposed to hire fact-checking agencies to keep a check on the spread of rumours and fake news on social media platforms.
At the beginning of 2019 social media platforms were called upon for self-regulation by the I&B Minister to deal with fake news.
In 2019, the press information bureau which comes under the Indian ministry of information and broadcasting set up a fact-checking unit which would specifically verify online news related to government.
The Government of India has made great efforts and taken various measures to tackle the scourge of online fake news, rumours, etc. However, its approach is often misguided and also dangerous.
In April 2018 The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting posted a tender for the development of a ‘Social Media Communications Hub’. The selected organization would be required to monitor and track platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn, internet forums and even e-mails to conduct sentiment analysis, identify “fake news,” and disseminate information, on Government’s behalf. However, the Centre withdrew its notification proposing to create Social Media Communications Hub by August 2018, because this would be like creating a surveillance state. It was alleged that such a hub could be used as a tool to monitor the online activities of citizens.
In December 2018, the Indian Government proposed new rules, which if passed, will require companies to identify and eliminate “unlawful information or content.” But such kind of legislation would seriously undermine users’ rights to freedom of speech and privacy. Such rules would enable companies to trace the origin of information posted on their platforms. This would require platforms such as WhatsApp, which use end-to-end encryption to either withdraw from India or introduce changes that would ensure cybersecurity and privacy of the users. The concept of data protection is often ignored while proposing such rules. This is because the government also wants to expand its powers of mass surveillance.
Internet shutdown is a new tool that the Government uses to control the spread of online fake news. 67% of the world’s total internet shutdown having happened in India this year, the country has become the internet shutdown capital of the world. Our authorities feel that shutting down the internet is the easiest and convenient way to deal with fake news. But this method of the government to deal with misinformation has affected the citizens and the growth of the country to a great extent. We live in a digital age. Every sector is in one way or the other dependent on the internet. As per a media report, the loss incurred by telecom companies during internet shutdowns amounts to around 24.5 million Rupees per hour. Not just telecom companies, today it is extremely difficult to do any business without the internet.
The Government needs to come up with better and strong laws to deal with those who spread misinformation without affecting the economy and its growth and also ensuring the privacy of citizens and cybersecurity.
A significant factor which causes the sharing of fake news is the limited ability of the users to differentiate facts from opinions. Audience or users lack the aptitude to verify the news they read or share on social media. Informing the people and creating awareness is the best investment to tackle this problem. Media literacy campaigns can help people understand the effects of fake news. This method is followed by many countries such as Belgium, Canada, Australia, etc. and has shown to be very effective. The government should conduct public education initiatives to make citizens aware of fake news and the problems associated with it.
In 2018, the officials in the district of Kannur in Kerala introduced classes in schools to curb fake news. This was initiated with a view to educate school children about what is fake news, how it can be dangerous, and the ways to control the spread of fake news.
In India, the service providers are also taking various measures towards controlling the spread of fake news and in creating awareness about the consequences of sharing such fake news.
In December 2018, WhatsApp put out three ad films to fight back circulation of fake stories and news. The users were asked to check the integrity of the information they received on forwarded messages, before sharing it with others.
In 2018, Google News introduced its largest training initiative in the world, a program to train 8000 journalists in 7 official Indian languages. The program aimed at spreading awareness of fake news and anti-misinformation practices such as fact-checking.
Fake News has become a threat that can only be curbed when collective efforts are made from individual to policy level. Demanding social media platforms to fix the problem is an extremely flawed approach. This is because most of the misinformation is shared in a decentralized manner.
Although it is the social media platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, etc. which has allowed people to share fake news and misinformation, the problem is not invented by the companies which own these platforms and applications. And therefore it is not possible for them to solve it alone.