The tweets, articles and videos circulated on Whatsapp, Facebook, Twitter, etc. which are nothing but a fabrication, fiction and editing of content, used to incite the people in taking ghastly actions against individuals and communities at large.
You hear about it on the news. A Hyderabad IT engineer was lynched just last week for handing out chocolates to children under the suspicion of being a child-trafficker. According to authorities, the killings are being related to text messages and videos shared on WhatsApp. The viral messages portray gory details of how children are abducted for their organs. The mob’s rage did not wait to check the truth to the rumors and ended up killing one and severely injuring three others.
It led me to question the cyber laws in place and their effectiveness in the era of fake news.
Fake news has affected not only India but has spread across the globe. Remember the TV18 owned website Faking News? It’s a leading news satire website in India. If you google them today, the first post you see reads somewhat like this: “Sairat makes offer money to Karan Johar to stop calling ‘Dhadak’ a remake of Sairat.”
While most you understand satire, not all do and very many a times what is meant to be not-news turns out to be big news in today’s day and age of social media.
I did a little bit of digging and found out about what makes this tick amongst our generation. And what consequences does it entail.
Where did ‘fake news’ originate?
Internationally, the term became dominant in the news from around 2016 and continued till date, mostly used as the dismissive response of US President Trump for any allegations. He has infamously clubbed all the dissenting media as ‘fake news’.
But the Wire, the Huffington Post, the Business Standard etc., have all reported and written about the troll army of BJP which originated around 2013-2014. There was even a controversial tell-all book called I Am a Troll: Inside the Secret World of the BJP’s Digital Army, by Swati Chaturvedi.
Then there was a BBC story on the origin of ‘fake news’. I recall hearing the term repeatedly during the Trump Election of 2016 and even now. The BBC story suggests how it originated in a small Eastern European town called Vales, where a group of about 140 news websites were spreading news which was fake to sway the elections!
These fake news feed off of the misinformation, lies and spinning one’s version. But the uniqueness of the situation is that due to technological advancement, this misinformation coupled with social media algorithms and the right promotional mechanisms are quite potent.
The potency of the situation can be ascertained by the fact that even the government asked netizens to stop circulating fake news. In 2017, the Union minister Rajyavardhan Rathore called out to the netizens to be “soldiers” by not forwarding “malicious” content on social media circulated by “enemies”.
You can become an expert in cyber laws and keep up with the laws, but these social media challenges can still sometimes feel like a bouncer bowled at you. All you can do is duck down in time or be hit!
How do fake news and political trolls work?
These fake news are circulated by a bunch of dedicated people who are given assignments to spread fake news and target dissenting individuals. They use insults of varying degrees, threats, racial or religious slurs, dismantling anyone who opposes their leaders.
In the era of Trump
According to a recent Times interview of the former Russian troll, Vitaly Bepalov, he answered a lucrative job posting of “Content Manager” in 2014, for the Internet Research Agency (now known as the troll factory). The ad did not describe the job, but it was clear from day one to Vitaly what he had to do. He had to create fake social media accounts and post comments as instructed. It turns out the bigger picture was aimed at disrupting the 2016 US Elections. There was an indictment of 13 Russian individuals and 3 companies as per the investigation of special counsel Robert Mueller. The individuals had worked for the Internet Research Agency at various times.
In the US, the aftermath of said fake news probably affected the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election. Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of interference in the presidential campaign is progressing. As of last week, he has indicted 12 Russian intelligence officials for hacking the servers of the Democrats, stealing data and publishing files to damage the 2016 presidential elections.
The US President has repeatedly called the investigation a ‘witch hunt’, which merely goes on to show the strain in the political and intelligence services’ relation. But this raises a very pertaining question: What can we do to deal with the fake news propaganda which supports the political agendas?
In the era of Modi
The rampant fake news has not only seemingly distorted the integrity of a presidential election abroad, but it also has some ghastly results closer to home, in India like mob lynching, riots, destruction of property, targeting dissenters.
The trolls closer to home have been instrumental in disrupting lives through riots, lynching and discrediting their dissenters. According to a news report the authorities found upon investigation of the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots, that the culprits had based it on a Whatsapp clip of the situation at Kawaal! The 2015 lynching of a Muslim ironsmith in Dadri was based on Whatsapp pictures of few bones which the mob believed was of beef meat.
Even the politicians have inadvertently let it slip from time to time that their ‘workers’ have been instrumental in smear campaigns. In 2016, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar had drawn flak from the opposition for suggesting that actor Aamir Khan should be “taught a lesson” for his comments on intolerance. It was also alleged that there was a smear campaign against Snapdeal which ended upon the removal of their advertisement.
Such stories are endless. Don’t believe me, check your family groups on Whatsapp and your Facebook wall or your Twitter feed. There is enough polarising content and fake news out there. The political parties have IT cells these days working tirelessly to propagate divisive sentiments into the minds of the viewers and readers. The sheer abundance of such content is beyond the managing ability of Whatsapp or Twitter.
Laws to counter the fake news
These trolls factory or the IT cells are the fake news generator. That is evident, and even the political figures like Amit Shah have acknowledged its growing strength. He is the man behind the influential social media campaign of BJP after all. He knows how social media can be best used to promote oneself.
The US is the forerunner of free speech laws. In cases of hate speech and actionable threats people are duly prosecuted and jailed. But in India, there is inadequate action taken against similar crimes on social media like hate speeches, rape and death threats, etc. They are neither condemned or banned, let alone jailed.
The protection of freedom of speech should not be extended to such trolls on social media who incite people by hate speeches or give rape or death threats. There should be stricter laws for such cases. You can learn more about the existing laws against hate speeches through comprehensive media law courses.
In India, we have cyber laws in place to deal with the online obscenity or threats. There are cyber cells which not only registers the complaint but also investigates it. With the rise in social media and applications, the vulnerabilities have increased. Therefore, we need to more educated about the cyber laws. There are online cyber law courses which teach the nitty-gritty of the subject.
Some legal experts want to hold the intermediaries like Twitter, Facebook, Whatsapp, liable for providing the platform for such abuse of social media. These intermediaries have time and again claimed to remove the fake accounts, taking stricter actions and revising privacy policies. But they seem to have barely any effect on the content circulation. In order to regulate content, there has to be some imposition of liability on these intermediaries. If they can support the sharing of content, they should be able to figure out its regulation for public welfare.
But the biggest concern in India presently is, the outburst on social media of fake news leading to mob lynching. The Supreme Court yesterday asked the Parliament to draft strict legislation against mob-lynching. CJI Dipak Misra leading a three-judge bench held that it was the State’s obligation to protect its citizen and maintain the integrity of the pluralistic social fabric of the country against mob violence.
In the US the investigative agencies are investigating the presidential elections, and special counsels are appointed for the same. But in India, such a scenario is unimaginable where investigative agencies will investigate the IT cells of political parties for abusing the social media and spreading fake news.
How to fight the fake news epidemic?
Trust but verify.
This simple principle will help you to identify what is true and what is not. The trolls target a particular demographic for their agenda of spreading fake news. So whenever someone sends you some inciting or politically inclined message, look it up online. More often than not, a quick search reveals the fake from the real news.
Try and teach others, especially those new to social media and technology, to use it properly and not share anything blindly with each other. Educating each other is essential. Maybe learn more about cyber crimes and how to deal with. You can learn more about cyber laws, tech-legal aspects of such social media crimes, and their practical application here.
The only solution to fake news is awareness and abstain from spreading it. If we learn and be more aware, we can cut-off the trolls at the source. If enough people, stop sharing and believing everything on social media blindly, fake news will not spread as much.
In my opinion, be Trump or Modi, the social media and public relations has been their strength to power. Whether they have used it or abused it, we can only keep guessing until there are stricter laws to regulate social media.