Assume a situation, that a person working as a software engineer with an MNC was beaten up by a crowd on the grounds of the information disseminated on WhatsApp. They had hammered that person so hard that he sustained critical injuries and was admitted to the hospital. Does this frighten you as it can also happen to you? If I say that the mob had beaten that person so brutally that he lost his life. This is even more serious as to how this can be possible that without listening to the person concerned, the mob is taking his life. The mob is taking the law into their hands just on the basis of suspicion and on unverified information. This is a real story of Salman, a software engineer who was suspected on the basis of a rumour of the child abductor in Karnataka. This is not the only incident. Such incidents have been happening in many parts of the country frequently. The central part of all such incidents has been rumours or wrong information circulated on social media platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook, etc. Such information which is invalid, untrue or unverifiable is called Fake News. According to one study, published by Business Standard(BS), 77 per cent of the cases of mob violence were fake which were reported as rumours of child lifting. Whatsapp, a mobile messenger, particularly was used as a rumour source in 28% of such cases. A total of 45 persons have been killed in 40 cases of mob lynching in different states between 2014 and 2018 and the trend in 2020 is also expanding. In a society, generation, production and dissemination of information is fundamental to a social and economic activity wherein information circulation is driven by the use of information and communication technology (ICT) to form a digital or information society. In the 21st century, we are talking about this kind of digital society and digital India, but such incidents have posed many serious challenges in front of the government, policymakers, law enforcement agencies(LEAs) and civil society. Simply by adopting the ICT in day to day functioning, sharing of information on social media platforms, promotion of e-governance needs a serious rethinking conceptually, in design and implementation in the present-day fast-changing digital and information-driven world.
Fake News and its Implications
Fake news is intentional, motive guided disinformation or misinformation or wrong interpretation of information disseminated via information sharing platforms such as traditional news media (print and online), online social media platforms such as Facebook, Whatsapp, Twitter etc. Fake news is employed to disseminate propaganda for the distinct types of gains – financial, economic, social or political and environmental. Fake news can have various manifestations: a piece of authentic information intentionally used in the wrong context, a section of information interpreted wrongly, imposter news outlets such as websites designed to look familiar with brands, unverified and unsourced information shared in online or offline groups; manipulated content in terms of text, images, audio or videos or the Parody account spreading misinformation. It is not a new concept. With increased penetration of ICT, Digital technologies and technology integration, the Information generation domain has been democratised without editorship and proper cross-verification mechanism in place. Earlier, the scale was not this big and there were certain organisations entrusted for information dissemination with proper checks. Technology has given the power to each and every individual to contribute information without thinking about its authenticity, verifiability, validity, context and implication. This huge scale of misinformation, due to the large population and digitally uneducated masses is becoming a challenge for the governments leading to serious, multifold and multidimensional implications for society. In sociological terms, it reduces the trust among the citizens, creates animosity and distrust amongst the community and society. Fake news is now perceived as one of the biggest menaces to democracy and free debate. It marginalises communities, makes certain sections of society vulnerable and creates fear in their mind thereby destroying the social-relational fabric and reducing social cohesion. Economically, it disturbs the smooth flow of goods and services, commercial activities due to tension in the social fabric of the country. Many industrialists have also expressed their concern regarding it. Culturally also society suffers setbacks as conflicts arise. On a large scale, it may result in riots, law and order problems and loss of public and private property. One of the important aspects of fake news is that it diverts the attention of the citizens and insignificant or less important issues take centre stage. The widespread perversion of social media platforms including Facebook, Youtube, Whatsapp and Twitter to spread fake news has been a global matter of concern. They are nowadays a great tool for spreading political propaganda during elections both in developed and developing countries. By studying fake news patterns and effects, it is observed that fake news does not change people’s political opinions, rather it reinforces the existing dogmas and brings out the most critical motives within them. Various reports have inferred that fake news is practised to create coloured perspicacity about political competitors or a particular section of people and manipulating the choices of the voters.
Fake news and India
India is the second-largest populated nation in the world and is aspiring to become industrialised. Indian growth is driven by the service sector in which Information Technology plays an important role. India has over 460 million internet users and according to the McKinsey study internet adoption trends in India are greater than in China. As per the report of an investment firm Omidyar Network, 200 million monthly users are active on Whatsapp in India, and a similar number on Facebook. Internet users spend 70 per cent time on apps like Facebook and WhatsApp. Such a large pool of population sharing incorrect information on social media and technological platforms create huge challenges in the context of fake news. Another significant study was done in terms of propagation of fake news by MIT and it was reported that fake news travels faster than real news and till the time real news reaches damage has already been done. In such situations, how do you govern and maintain the social fabric, culture, law and order in sustainable order?
Government Intervention and steps are taken
Fake news is not a single domain problem but necessitates to be approached from a multidimensional point of view and plan. It involves problems of law and order, lack of government policy, inadequate skill set of local administration, lack of awareness about digital means and misinformation, absence of technological solutions for detection of fake news in the large databases of information of technology and social media platforms etc. To solve the problem of fake news, the Government needs to adopt a multipronged strategy for a sustainable and long term solution. Politically, the Government needs to come up with a policy document and take feedback on identification, monitoring, and mitigation of the fake news from the stakeholders. Developing the necessary steps in an objective fashion with clarity should be the priority. Other countries’ experiences can also be helpful. Law enforcement agencies and personnel face the challenge of identification and recognition of fake news and post identification the strategy to contain its spread. Advanced level research and development and workshops should be conducted and dedicated teams should be deployed for analysing the social media data with the help of social media companies as done by the Election commission of India during the general election 2019. Filtering and recognition from social media content is a massive global problem for social media giants Facebook, Twitter, Google. They have no full-proof template and technical solution to automatically detect and recognise fake news instantly from a large set of databases of news, consistently preventing online fake news or eliminating it. Presently, they take decisions on the basis of users’ feedback to decide and detect the fake news and hate speeches which are again a manual process, slow and subjective. There’s no silver bullet solution in fighting misinformation and solving this problem quickly. The government should ask Academia and Industry for developing systems and tools to detect fake news through funding by Government and private organisations. Law and order enforcement agencies(LEAs) and personnel need dedicated and specialised teams and cells for analysing social media content in close coordination with social media platforms and technology giants to mitigate the effects of fake news. Journalism needs to have a great responsibility, Media should become vigilant about the content and their reporting so that it is not misused and misrepresented. The citizens should also be trained to be more scientific and rational and objectively verify the information before believing any information coming from the social media platform. Workshops on fact-checking and media literacy should become part of governance machinery, educational systems and curriculum. Social media policy needs to be developed and stringent provisions must be incorporated for sharing fake news and information which may create law and order problems. The government should run a series of programmes in schools, colleges and higher education institutes about spotting fake news and how to stop its spread.
Fake news is a severe predicament in the present-day transforming digital and information society which poses challenges to national security, democracy, free speech, businesses, trade and commerce, social fabric and cohesion of the diverse society of India. The government needs to adopt a multidimensional strategy and take steps proactively from the multi-directional point of view keeping in mind its execution, implementation and effectiveness so that no innocent person becomes the victim of such incidents.
Dr. Sachin Kumar Sharma is an Assistant Professor at Cluster Innovation Centre, University of Delhi. He is an acclaimed researcher and public policy expert in the domain of Artificial Intelligence, Urban Computing and Information and Computational Social Systems.