The Digital Pandemic

The spread of misinformation in varied forms has always been a problematic situation in political and non-political scenarios for a long time, affecting businesses and societies. The spread of fake news is not a modern problem but the social media age has added to the problem given that the spread of misinformation often takes just a few seconds and quickly affects the mindset of society

Fake news spread on social media these days has a huge impact on the opinions of people around the world. One case of fake news spread which shook the world in recent times was the 2016 US Presidential election, where it was believed that millions of twitter and Facebook users were politically influenced to support certain agendas under the influence of tweets and Facebook posts they read. According to some news agencies, Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm illegally used the data of 87 million users’ Facebook profiles to influence voters in the states. Some claim that the news spread on social media was not that influential as compared to what the average American user digests via news channels. But this brings into limelight the influence of social media on a regular person’s life and how easy it is to influence a group of people by spreading misinformation. Over the years, social media has emerged as a platform where anyone from any place can post absolutely anything at any given point in time. It primarily works on the number of clicks that works as a catalyst in spreading personalized ads that can manipulate and shape public discourse. This model allows a platform to launder one’s propaganda in a very subtle way which the audience hardly realises. The leverage over the audience has enabled false information to spread much more rapidly than accurate information.

The Indian scenario

With the growing number of smartphone users in India as the cost of mobile phones is decreasing day by day, the number of people to whom the falsified information can be spread has grown exponentially. According to the reports released in July 2019, India has around 400 million WhatsApp users and Facebook the parent company of WhatsApp has around 241 million active users, which makes India the biggest market for digital promoters to sell information. This also means that India has potentially a large group of people to be influenced by the false information in distressing times like COVID-19.

In India, around 84 per cent of Whats App users fall in the age group of 18-35, and the people who digest news from messaging platforms are now being called the students of WhatsApp University’. Everyday hundreds of fake news messages, images and videos are shared on this platform with people believing it to be true, spreading it both digitally and verbally. In these difficult times when everyone is concerned about their health and the medical researchers are working hard to find a cure for containing the novel coronavirus, the WhatsApp University has already taught people how to get cured, with fake news disguised as ‘Medical Advice’ clamming that taking home remedies such as in digesting hot lemon water will increase the Vitamin C in the body will destroy the virus. A medical claim on WhatsApp claiming that drinking Gaumutra or Cow Urine is a cure for virus was so widely spread in the country that a few political parties organised events where hundreds of people gathered to drink cow urine as suggested by WhatsApp University to protect themselves from the pandemic. Another such fake news which has had a devastating effect on Industry and Indian economy was claiming that eating chicken can cause coronavirus. This news had a major effect on the life of many poultry farmers and businesses run around the industry. The falsified information spread through social media led to a staggering loss to the industry with the price falling from 180 per kg to60-70 per kg in days and around an estimated loss of `1.6 billion per day according to All India Poultry Breeders’ Association. Not only this news affected the poultry farmers who due to the spread of misinformation were forced to sell their chicken at low prices or in giving them free, but lots of chickens old and newly born were also horrifically killed. This loss of poultry industry also affected the maize and soya industry of India as the major consumer of these industries were the poultry farmers.
Not only WhatsApp but the video streaming platform YouTube is also accountable for the spread of misinformation. In India, YouTube has a monthly viewership of 265 million active users, which means people go search for facts and news on YouTube. With the current algorithm of YouTube where the videos and channels only get blocked after a certain number of users report it for falsified or misleading information, the spread of false information is on par with any other social media channel. Thanks to the cheap data plans and click baits that attract new users to digest false information YouTube has become a growing platform to spread fake information. On YouTube, a growing number of videos surfaced online which suggests how you can cure COVID-19 with home remedies or a falsified conspiracy theory to influence political opinions. While there is no fact check in place to remove these videos from any online platform other than reporting them, most people believe them to be true. One such channel which got immensely popular at the beginning of the outbreak was Prajapati News, a self-claimed news source on YouTube with over 6.21 million subscribers, which had put videos like, “This is where Coronavirus came from” and “From this Chinese lab the virus was leaked” both videos were viewed around 4 million times. The YouTube algorithm works based on your view history which recommends you new videos/channels/ads based on what you saw earlier. It is easy to see more falsified news if you click on one such news.

How India can stop fake news : POLICY, ACT or TECHNOLOGY

Though India does not have any specific law to deal with the fake news published or spread online, there are a few legal provisions under the Indian Penal Code to deal with online menace. The existing legal provisions are:

Section 505(1) of Indian Penal Code, 1860: The punishment for making, publishing or circulating any statement, rumour or report which may cause fear or alarm to the public, or any section ofthe public.

Punishment: Fine or imprisonment of upto three years or both.

Section 54 of the Disaster Management Act, 2005: Whoever makes or circulates a false alarm or warning as to disaster or its severity or magnitude, leading
to panic.

Punishment: Fine or imprisonment of upto one year or both.

Section 66D of the Information Technology Act: Whoever, by means for any communication device or computer resource, cheats by personating.

Punishment: Imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three years and shall also be liable to fine which may extend to one lakh rupees.

At the time when the growing number of atrocities around the country due to the spread of misleading messages on digital platforms, India has taken a slew of measures under various acts to put a stop at fake news. During the 21 days lockdown, the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) which is chaired by the Prime Minister of India, referred to the Section 54 of Disaster Management Act. It says, “Whoever makes or circulates a false alarm or warning as to disaster or its severity or magnitude, leading to panic, shall on conviction, be punishable with imprisonment which may extend to one year or with fine.” In a bid to tackle the spread of fake news over the most used messaging platform in the country, the government has rolled out the WhatsApp chatbot, “MyGov Corona Helpdesk” which can be accessed by texting on +91- 9013151515. The chatbot is equipped to address various FAQs of COVID-19, such as helpline number, symptoms of diseases, protective measures and government advisory.

How tech giants fight against fake news?

The biggest problem behind fighting the fake news on a digital platform is that it is not a piece of code or data that can be detected by automated tools available online. It is a piece of information that gets posted and surfaced online which can only be declared true or false by human intervention. Nevertheless, our technology can help improve transparency around fake claims and misinformation. There is a need to teach people how we can detect fake news or how to segregate fake news from original ones using online tools. The technology giants, Google, Facebook, YouTube, and Microsoft all have joined hands in fighting against the spread of fake news. Facebook has started banning advertisements which are selling fake products or fake information. Google has announced Google News Initiative (GNI) similar to what it uses in Europe through Digital News Initiative.

There are three specific goals of the Google News Initiative:

  • Highlight accurate journalism while fighting misinformation, particularly during breaking news events.
  • Help news sites continue to grow from a business perspective.
  • Create new tools to help journalists do their jobs.

Through the India training network of GNI, Google will teach journalists, academicians, fact-checkers, and NGOs about how to detect fake news online, how to do a fact check and how to stop its spread in the Indian scenario. Moreover one must state that fake news can not only be curbed by the initiatives of tech giants or government but it should be taught to people how to spot it. In a country where every day new users are being exposed to the digital world, and they are being taught how to use these digital platforms, it has become easy for anyone to spread locally drafted fake news to masses creating a situation of terror. While government and technology are working to stop the spread we need to fact check the truth behind every WhatsApp forward before forwarding it to our groups of hundreds of people.

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