Controlling Fake News in India and associated challenges  – Explained, pointwise

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The spread of fake news has become a major concern in today’s digital age. Recently, a malicious disinformation campaign led to law-and-order issues in Tamil Nadu, where false claims about violence against migrant workers from Bihar were propagated through social media. Though the Tamil Nadu police responded quickly and countered these false claims with factual reports, the incident highlights the potential for fake news to destabilise democratic institutions.  

What is fake News?  

“Fake news” is “fabricated information that mimics news media content in form but not in organisational process or intent. Fake news outlets, in turn, lack the news media’s editorial norms and processes for ensuring the accuracy and credibility of information. Fake news overlaps with other information disorders, such as misinformation (false or misleading information) and disinformation (false information that is purposely spread to deceive people).”  

What are the causes of Fake News spread In India?  

Social media: The rise of social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp has made it easier for fake news to spread quickly and widely. 

Political polarisation: India’s political landscape is highly polarised, and this has contributed to the spread of fake news that reinforces people’s preconceived beliefs and biases. 

Lack of media literacy: Many people in India have limited media literacy skills, which makes them more susceptible to believing and sharing fake news. For example, according to the India Inequality Report 2022, among the poorest 20% of households, only 2.7% have access to a computer and 8.9% to internet facilities. 

Sensationalism in the media: Some news outlets in India prioritize sensationalism over the accuracy, which can lead to the spread of false information.  

Religious and communal tensions: India has a history of religious and communal tensions and fake news that fuels these tensions can quickly go viral. 

Financial incentives: Some people and organizations spread fake news for financial gain. For example, Social media platforms pay content creators based on views, and divisive content can garner significant attention. Therefore, there will always be a possibility that content creators may attempt such mischief again. 

What are the effects of fake news?  

Spread of misinformation: Fake news can spread false or misleading information that can be harmful to individuals, communities, or society as a whole. For example, in 2017, a fake news story claiming that the Indian government was planning to introduce microchips in new currency notes to track black money led to widespread panic and confusion. 

Undermining trust and credibility in institutions: When fake news is spread by mainstream media or government sources, it can erode trust in these institutions and create confusion among the public. For example, the false claim that the COVID-19 vaccine causes infertility in women. This claim was circulated on social media and other platforms, despite being completely unfounded and not supported by any credible scientific evidence. 

Fueling communal tensions: Fake news that targets specific communities or religions can exacerbate existing tensions and lead to violence or discrimination. For example, false information about a particular religious community’s involvement in a terrorist attack or a criminal act can fuel hatred and anger towards that community. Similarly, fake news that spreads misinformation about a particular community’s cultural practices or values can create negative perceptions and increase tensions between different communities. 

Political polarisation: Fake news can contribute to political polarisation by reinforcing existing biases and promoting a narrow, one-sided view of events. For example, the extensive use of social media in influencing public opinion in the US Presidential election. 

Economic impact: Fake news can have an economic impact, particularly on businesses or industries that are targeted by false information. For example, Chit fund schemes introduced the concept of online fraud through spam emails. 

Health impact: During the COVID-19 pandemic, fake news about cures or treatments for the virus has led to people taking unsafe or ineffective remedies. 

Societal impact: Fake news affects the spirit of common brotherhood and increases intolerance in the country. For example, a mass exodus of North-Easterners from Bangalore in 2012 was based on false online threats. 

Must read: Threat of Deepfakes in India

What are the challenges in controlling Fake News?  

Scale: With a population of over 1.3 billion people, India has a vast and diverse media landscape, making it difficult to monitor and regulate all sources of information. For example, according to the National Crime Records Bureau, the number of cases filed under Section 505 of the Indian Criminal Code (IPC) against those ‘circulating fake/false news/rumours’ climbed by 214% in 2020. 

Political pressures: India’s political climate can make it challenging to enforce regulations on media and communication platforms without being seen as biased or suppressing free speech. 

Limited resources: Regulators and law enforcement agencies in India do not have the necessary resources, technology, or expertise to effectively track and combat the spread of fake news. 

Technological advancements: Advances in technology, such as deep fakes and other forms of synthetic media, make it increasingly difficult to distinguish between real and fake information. 

Lack of trust: Many Indians have a general lack of trust in traditional media sources, which can make it easier for fake news to spread. 

Cultural and linguistic diversity: India has a wide variety of cultures and languages, making it challenging to effectively communicate and enforce regulations across the country. 

Limited media literacy: Many Indians may not have sufficient media literacy skills to distinguish between real and fake news, making them more vulnerable to believing and sharing false information. 

Regulatory issues:Internet users frequently communicate across international borders, thus regulating it raises its own legal concerns. 

Read more: Are law and technology a solution to fake news?

What are the Legal remedies available for controlling Fake News? 

Legal remedies available for controlling Fake News in India are: 

Defamation laws: Indian law (IPC Section 499,500 and 505) recognises the right to reputation and allows individuals or organizations to seek legal recourse against those who spread false information that damages their reputation. 

IT Act: The Information Technology (IT) Act, 2000 provides for penalties for publishing or transmitting obscene or defamatory material on the internet, including fake news. 

The Disaster Management Act 2005 and the Epidemic Diseases Act 1897: They helped (especially during Covid-19) regulate the circulation of fake news or rumours that can cause panic among citizens. 

IPC: (IPC Sections 153A and 295)The Indian Penal Code (IPC) has provisions that can be used to prosecute those who spread false information with the intention of causing harm or creating public unrest. 

The Constitution Provision:  Article 51A (h) of the Constitution, which states that “It shall be the duty of every citizen to develop the scientific temper, humanism, and spirit of inquiry and reform” offers a long-term solution.  

Broadcasting Content Complaint Council (BCCC): It can receive complaints about problematic TV material or fake news.  

Contempt of Court: Those who spread fake news that interferes with the administration of justice can be held in contempt of court, which is punishable under Indian law. 

Cyber Crime Cells: Several Indian cities have established cyber crime cells that investigate cases related to fake news and other forms of cybercrime. 

Press Council of India: The Press Council of India is a statutory body that regulates the print media and can take action against newspapers or journalists that violate ethical guidelines. 

Fact-checking initiatives: Several fact-checking organizations have emerged in India that seek to verify the information and debunk fake news through independent journalism and research. For example, the PIB launched its fact-checking division in 2019. 

Read more: The forecast after a fake news campaign in Tamil Nadu

What are the global initiatives for controlling Fake News? 

Several countries are taking steps to combat disinformation, like: 

  • The European Union (EU) has implemented a Code of Practice on Disinformation. This includes measures like transparency in political advertising, support for fact-checkers and researchers, tools to identify disinformation, and measures to reduce manipulative behaviour.  
  • The United Kingdom is considering an Online Safety Bill, which would require social media platforms to monitor problematic content.  
  • The Parliament of Turkey adopted the disinformation law‘, the law has provision to jail terms of up to three years for social media users and journalists for spreading ‘disinformation. 

What should be done to control Fake News?  

Curbing Fake News
Source: Cornell Library

Controlling fake news is a complex issue that requires a multi-faceted approach involving various stakeholders. Some steps that can be taken to control fake news are: 

Strengthen media literacy: Media literacy programs should be promoted to help people distinguish between reliable and unreliable news sources. These programs should also teach critical thinking skills to help people evaluate the veracity of news stories. 

Regulate social media: Social media platforms should take responsibility for preventing the spread of fake news on their platforms. This can be achieved by creating algorithms that detect and flag false information, and by removing fake news content from their platforms. 

Strengthen journalism: Traditional media should maintain high standards of journalism and should be encouraged to fact-check their stories before publishing them. 

Promote fact-checking websites: Fact-checking websites can be useful in verifying the accuracy of news stories. People should be encouraged to use these websites to verify the veracity of news stories they encounter. 

Punish offenders: There should be penalties for those who deliberately spread fake news. This will act as a deterrent and discourage the spread of fake news. 

Encourage responsible sharing: People should be encouraged to share news stories responsibly. They should only share stories from reliable sources and should verify the accuracy of the information before sharing it.

Read more: Policy discussions involving the public as well as tech solutions, would help fight fake news.

Sources: The Hindu (Article 1 and Article 2), The Hindu BusinessLine, The Print, The Quint.

Syllabus: GS 3: Security Issues – The role of media and social networking sites in internal security challenges.

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