In wake of the current global crisis, governments across the federal structure have an up-hill task in getting the Covid-19 situation under control. But now having said that, the situation of ‘fake news’ making rounds on the media, social networking sites and cross-platform messaging applications has left the governments with their hands-full.
Addressing the issue of migrant labourers, the division bench of the Supreme Court categorically mentions in its Order dated 31.03.2020 about the foul hand fake news is playing amidst the crisis. The Apex Court pinned the mass hysteria created amongst the labour class to look for greener pastures, on circulation of fake news on the media and online portals for circulating preposterous news about an extended lock-down (“up-to 90 days”). The turn of events has prompted the Supreme Court to advise the media houses against publishing fake news but to rely on information and guidelines published by the Government on the situation from time to time.
It was widely reported after that the migrant labourers’ situation at the borders of Delhi could be traced back to misinformation which was circulated by certain bigots undermining and disdaining the efforts of the Government in dealing with this unprecedented situation. In woke of such an unimaginable and untenable situation, it is imperative that the Government leaves no stones unturned in providing assistance to the helpless migrants. Even the apex institute for medical research, Indian Council for Medical Research (“ICMR”), was not spared from fake news making rounds against it. From being accused of overpaying for the test kits to failure in its part to co-ordinate with the Centre.
The prevalence of fake news related to the Covid-19 situation is used by countries to justify new misinformation legislation, which could be true with India as well. The Government is mulling to bring changes to the current legal framework by proposing an amendment to the Information Technology Intermediary Guidelines Rules, 2011. The proposal to enact the Information Technology Intermediary Guidelines (Amendment) Rules, 2018 is in the pipeline, vehemently in pursuit to take down fake news. The proposed amendment calls for steeper penalty on web portals and phone application which fail to comply with the proposed framework. The Government has been pursuing specific provisions under the Information Technology Act, 2000, which in the long run could be a better solution, considering that provisions under Disaster Management Act, 2005 and the Indian Penal Code have proved to be inadequate to deal with the propagandas and misinformation being circulated on electronic medium.
The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (“MoEIT”) is making a sincere effort by issuing an advisory to bring in line all the social media platforms from unfurling false information, and putting the onus on the intermediaries to remove any fake news/ misinformation which are likely to cause panic among the public. Temporary efforts such as introducing “Saathi Chatbot”, keeping the citizens updated with the latest news and myth-busters relating to Covid-19 might not be enough in the long run to keep the citizens away from misinformation.
Moving beyond the realms of understanding fake news from the perspectives of the pandemic, we must bear in mind its ability to polarise opinions amongst the population, on issues such as policy making, elections, genocide tailored to benefit certain malignant influencers in the society. The Government of India, must take cues from Singapore in enacting a specific piece of legislation to regulate the freedom of press from spurring fake news and false alarms and while doing so it is cardinal to not overlook the rights concerning speech and expression, and to carry on the business, which are pedestal to democracy.