India’s battle against fake news has got vehement with time, even the government pressurizes tech companies for more content regulation, and tech companies are attempting to clean up one mess after another. The authenticity of news has become the longstanding issue affecting the business and society as well. As we are now in this advanced world the dependency on digital media has increased and so as the risk of fake information. Society today is experiencing something called an ‘information disorder’ that is to be distinguished between what is correct and what is not. On social networking sites, the reach and effects of information spread are significantly amplified and occur at such a fast pace, that distorted, inaccurate or even false information acquires a tremendous potential to cause real impacts, within a minute, for millions of users.
Covid-19 spread to almost all the countries, and more and more people are forced to stay home during quarantine, that led to the increase in internet usage, as people are dependent to online platforms for working, seeking knowledge, reaching out to loved ones and also at the time of crises people are eager to share personal details to the known ones. Any misinformation at this crucial time can have a devastating effect.
Ever since the coronavirus outbreak was first reported in Wuhan, China, social media platforms have been flooded with posts on the disease and its symptoms. Starting in February, when awareness about the disease rose in India, social media platforms have seen many posts on Covid-19 — ranging from information on the outbreak to false news about its origin and spread to offering untested treatment for the disease, and also prescribing strange diets so as the cure to it which people without even thinking twice follow.
LOCKDOWN & FAKE NEWS
Amid the lockdown being enforced across the country first for 21 days then extended, such misleading posts not only amplify the menace of fake news, creating panic and frustration among the people but also result in privacy violations as well. Medical records of people who are tested for COVID-19 are being circulated. Even a few cases of false medical reports have also been circulated of random individuals which have been causing the mental agony to them as they are being boycotted by the people, a kind of racism is seen among the people against them.
In light of this, the Indian government issued a directive to all social media companies asking them to actively prevent sharing of fake news on their platforms, take-down any mis-informative posts, and offer genuine news sources on their platforms so that people become aware of it.
Because of so much content on the internet, it is difficult for individuals to know which news is real and which is fake. Herbal cures for coronavirus, communal content, pictures regarding government notifications, an audio clip went viral in social media which claimed that vegetable sellers were licking the vegetables to spread Coronavirus, a video of Muslim people licking the utensils vent viral on a social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Whatsapp, and Telegram, there are a series of posts giving unverified information. These are few examples of how misinformation is being circulated on social media, which is creating fear among the public and making it difficult for the government and others to do their jobs in these difficult times.
Misinformation targeting religious minorities are even accelerating, fake news is circulated that the members of the group have spat on doctors, misbehaved and tried to spread the virus, triggering Islamophobia in the country. During this time where people need to be together, without thinking about their caste and creed and help as much as people they can because many people are stranded away from home without having the basic necessities. They need help and government authorities cannot help everyone.
Despite the warnings, many wicked minds continue to create and spread fake posts. And even a larger section forwards them across groups. We need a much wider awareness exercise, to make every section of the society aware of the laws and regulations as well as the harmful effects of fake posts. Because until and unless people are scared of something they won’t stop doing it.
LAWS RELATED TO MISINFORMATION
In India even though there is no specific law related to fake news, there are certain provisions of the existing law so as curb the spread of fake information among the public. The Supreme Court of India on 31 March has even passed an order in a case relating to the treatment of migrants, in which it has expressed concern about fear among the people by fake news in a situation like this.
The Personal Data Protection Bill 2019 (PDPB), Section 54 of the Disaster Management Act 2005 (DMA) — which deals with false warnings around a disaster leading to panic. The only thing to do is that law enforcement agencies need to take stricter action against fake-content generators and transmitters. Section 505(1) of Indian Penal Code, 1860: which specifies the punishment for making, publishing, or circulating any statement, rumor, or report which may cause fear or alarm to the public, or to any section of the public with the intent to incite people.Punishment for which is Imprisonment which may extend to 3 years or fine or both. Section 66D of Information Technology Act: Whoever, by means for any communication device or computer resource, cheats by personating. Punishment for the same is 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. People recently have been booked under these sections in states like Kerala, Hyderabad , Tamil Nadu, Maharastra , and even in Mizoram on false claims related to Covid-19.
Not adhering to the law could lead to serious implications that the people don’t understand they thought what they do is always correct and nothing could harm them. What people do is they got the information, they without even reading it once forward-thinking what they are doing is correct.
The quest for a system to prevent the creation of fake news collides with democratic values like freedom of speech which is one of the fundamental rights given to the citizens. However, false information needs to be stopped and reliance on the facts should be made. As there is reasonable restrictions to the Fundamental Rights. The problem is installed in the public conscience, it is they who have to check information first before circulating to the other.
What India needs today is a fine balance to ensure authenticity without affecting free speech. Ensuring a difference between fact and opinion. As under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, we have a newly emerged right that is Right to Privacy. As we have seen countries like Singapore and Russia whose anti-fake laws actually curtail the people’s rights as it gave too much power to the government. Stricter laws are needed but due process of law should also be maintained. Clearly, a concerted war against coronavirus has to be fought on multiple fronts. Fake news on the pandemic is one such critical front.
This article has been authored by Anchal Raghuwanshi from Dharmashastra National Law University, Jabalpur.
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