For almost a quarter of year 2020, people stayed confined in their homes with little or no contact with the outside world. Social media activity has gone up many folds. News from all over the world is a click away on social media. Users often do not pay attention to the source of the news that the come across on social networking sites. A Reuters Institute survey of Indian internet users found 52% got news via WhatsApp. A study on 2016 USA presidential elections’ voter dynamics shows that people above 65 are more prone to share fake news over social media without fact checking them.
Fake-news is misleading information that could have very dangerous outcome on the readers. Widely forwarded messages can be dangerous on WhatsApp, because they often come with implicit approval of a friend or family member. These messages are rapidly disconnected from their initial context.
Impact of Fake News During COVID-19
WhatsApp is being flooded with misinformation during the lockdown. From unverified home remedies to conspiracy theories to celestial relevance in clapping hands. For example, a WhatsApp forward said having enough boiled water with garlic cloves will help kill the virus.
Recently, news of some Tablighi Jamaat attendees testing positive for covid-19 broke out. In mid-March, viral hate-mongering, communal false messages started taking rounds on WhatsApp. A viral video showed a Muslim man spitting on food packets before packing them for delivery. The had been video shot long before the outbreak of the virus. Racist hashtags like “coronaJihad”, “CoronaTerrorism” and “CoronaBombsTablighi” started trending on twitter. Equality Labs demanded the Indian government to take steps in curbing the use of communal hate mongering language linked to Covid-19.
Indian Law and the role of Intermediaries
Upload filter, traceability, 24-hour takedowns etc., are some of the ways to keep check on the messages floated on WhatsApp. These are intermediary based solutions. WhatsApp itself has taken certain steps to curb the spread of fake news. The messages classified as frequently forwarded can only be sent to a single chat at a time.
WhatsApp is also working on a feature where users can verify the authenticity of the messages. However, each WhatsApp group can have up-to 256 members and it has almost 400 million users in India. Thus, the steps taken by WhatsApp will have little to no effect on the spread of fake news.
The central government came up with draft intermediary guidelines to tackle fake news. Under the guideline, intermediaries have to inform users about regulation, rules and privacy policies. This is to ensure that users do not share any content, which might affect public health and safety. The rules mandate the intermediaries to deploy automated tools. These tools will identify, remove or disable access to unlawful information.
Intermediaries have to share information with the government when asked. Further, they will have to trace out the originator if need be. The executive of such intermediaries may face jail term in case of non-compliance. Contrastingly, section 79 of the IT Act provides a safe harbor to intermediaries. It states intermediaries have no knowledge of the content shared on their platforms. Hence, they are not liable for the same.
WhatsApp claims it cannot read the messages since they are end-to-end encrypted. It has already opposed these rules because they breach the privacy of the users.
While the central government faces moral turpitude, the state governments took action. In March 2020, the Delhi government formed ‘Committee on Peace and Harmony’. It announced anyone sharing false and misleading information could face jail term for three years. In April 2020, the Maharashtra State Cyber Crime Cell announced group admins and anyone posting messages promoting enmity between groups is punishable under Section 153A & B of IPC. The effect of fake news during the lockdown has been noxious and it continues to be so. The government needs to take immediate action and create a sense of responsibility while using social media.
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