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The battle against fake news

The standoff between the government and social media giants has been escalating with both sides disagreeing over the fine print of new IT rules meant to regulate online speech. Is it a case of State overreach, or are the global social media giants shirking responsibility for content on their platforms? Read on.

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Rahul Narayan

To understand the issue in detail, the Apeejay Institute of Mass Communication (AIMC) organised a webinar on ‘Implications for Social Media vis-a-vis New IT Rules’.  The guest speaker was Mr. Rahul Narayan, a lawyer, a legal researcher and a writer. In recent years he has been involved in significant litigation on civil liberties, constitutional law, privacy and data protection.

Opening the session, Prof. Ashok Ogra, Advisor (Mass Communication), AIMC said, “Nobody can deny that the virus of fake news and misinformation needs to be eliminated. The question is how does a democratic country negotiate this challenge? When I look at the business model of social media, Artificial Intelligence is used to limit our choices. We get recommendations based on our past patterns. What we see is not our choice. I think it’s a big problem because at the end of the day you learn from contrarian views. The growth of civilisations is driven by contrarian views. The pandemic of fake news must be tackled with maturity.”

Added Narayan, “The first important incident concerning free speech happened in British Parliament in the 1390s. A parliamentarian criticised King Richard II for spending taxpayers’ money on personal expenses. The king got upset and got the parliamentarian arrested and seized his property. Against this backdrop, in 1689, a law was passed which said that the freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament can’t be questioned in any court or place out of Parliament. This practice is followed in India as well.”

“In India, people get offended very easily and there’s a general perception that what offends me should not be said or published. This is not right,” he added.  

Narayan talked about the global norms on ‘safe harbour’ protection for social media intermediaries. Safe harbour means immunity for social media companies, in case any content transmitted over their platforms violates local laws. “Twitter and Facebook can’t be held liable for what you read and write on your timelines. At best, they can take down the problematic content based on the court order. But, with new IT laws, social media companies will be liable for punishment for ‘unlawful’ content. Social media companies rely on safe harbour protection to do their business.”

Narayan said social media companies have come up with their own mechanisms to tackle fake news. He gave an example of Twitter which came up with ‘manipulated media policy’, which largely involves labelling tweets and warning users of manipulated, deceptively altered or fabricated media. “This preserves free speech because the users can still express their thoughts while people who receive such messages know that it’s unverified. Still, the government says the best way to tackle fake news is to block whatever we say is controversial. This is where the conflict arises.”  

Narayan said he supports the Centre’s intermediary guidelines asking all significant social media platforms with more than 50 lakh users to have a larger grievance redressal mechanism. He said this will help in quick removal of offensive content. But the requirement to identify the first originator will destroy encryption. “It is a very important part of privacy. For example, WhatsApp doesn’t know what you are sending or receiving. But, to comply with the new rules, WhatsApp will be forced to record our conversations. There’s a danger that this information could be misused.”

In conclusion, appropriate regulations are needed to monitor social media but high-handedness is not the answer, added Narayan.

We all know that social media giants such as Facebook, Twitter or Google are too powerful. They are more powerful than many States. But, we don’t want to take the power from social media and empower the government. We need to empower the people. Both the State and social media companies should have lesser power vis-a-vis people.

-Rahul Narayan

Dheeraj Sharma is Asst. Editor (Newsroom). He covers events, webinars, conducts interviews and brings you exciting news snippets. He has over 10 years' of experience in prominent media organizations. He takes pleasure in the small things in life and believes a healthy work-life balance is key to happiness. You can reach him at [email protected]

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