THE QUEST FAKE NEWS
Man reading a newspaper with fake news and lies

THE FAKE NEWS PANDEMIC: A VIRAL LIE

SANIGHDHA
3rd YEAR, UNIVERSITY INSTITUTE OF LEGAL STUDIES, PANJAB UNIVERSITY, CHANDIGARH

“Beware of false knowledge; it is more dangerous than knowledge.”

George Bernard Shaw

A constant tribulation and a vexing mishap-fake news today, has become the most formidable and strenuous burden to deal with. Sans legal clarity and legislative authority, curbing a growing menace like fake news has proven to be a mammoth task up till now. A societal curse and an internet bane, fake news has had a dual origin. The critical issue of fake news is not a new one and has been in existence since the development of modern press. The reliability of the aforementioned fact can be gauged from a cutting note (Outlines of Historical view of the Progress of Human Mind) produced by the then US President John Adams, in which he goes on to say- “There has been more new error propagated by the press in the last ten years than in a hundred years before 1798.” Surprisingly enough, the trouble regarding fake news was on a stupendous rise in England, way before it was in the US. 

There is no conclusive definition of fake news and because of the same reason; it becomes implausible to tackle it intuitively and astutely. In layman’s terms it can be elucidated as, “fabricated information that mimics news media content in form but not in organizational process or intent. Fake news overlaps with other informational disorders such as misinformation (false or misleading information) and disinformation (false information that is purposely spread to deceive people).” Retracting from the world scenario, it must be noted that fake news has found a new breeding ground for itself in India. It must be highlighted that 2019 was declared as the ‘Year of Fake News’ in India. With a significant 20% to 50% rise, India managed to break all records of societal fake news penetration. Juxtaposed with significant technological developments such as internet connectivity and universal availability of communication gadgets, the issue at hand has explicitly taken a distinct ungovernable turn. 

Statistical Analysis

Whether it was the infamous Russian intervention in the 2016 US Presidential elections via well documented fake news and bionics or the Cambridge Analytica Scandal of the year 2018; fake news undeniably has a perceptible international manifestation along with having multitudinous inter-sectoral implications. The Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net 2017 Report has specifically detected the growing online manipulation and misinformation stratagem in at least 18 countries in the preceding year (2016), including the USA. Recently released Freedom in the World Report (2020) highlights the passing of a dictatorial law by the Singapore Government, in order to silence the rising opposition and to arbitrarily tackle other government critics. Shockingly enough, the aforementioned legislation was formulated under the veil of curbing the diurnal upsurge of fake news. governments of Venezuela, Philippines and Turkey have been repeatedly accused of using fake government commentators to spread manoeuvred views and act as ‘opinion shapers’ of the common masses. Countering State critics and orchestrating discretely designed government agendas is their forte, which undoubtedly leads to meteoric rise in fake news numbers. 

Other nations such as Russia and China have been constantly accused of incorporating clandestine modus operandi to outlaw government dissent. This practice has since attained a global stature and can be explicitly noticed in the functioning of less developed countries as well. The use of Pena bots in Mexico is one such example, and brings to fore the disturbing application as well as influence of fabricated news pieces. Presently, online discussions can be easily engineered in a targeted manner by employing surreptitious means. Fake news in India rose from 2% in January 2020 to a whopping 60% in April 2020. A scrutinised look at the above mentioned data expressly shows the myriad repercussions of the fake news conundrum on any democratic governance system- including India; and how grave the fake news katzenjammer can be. 

A Forged Infodemic

Ever since Indians became adept to the eternally-evolving digital techniques, fake news has inadvertently become synonymous to reliable news. Disinformation and misinformation have become an intrinsic component of the Indian media platforms. The widespread use of WhatsApp and Facebook-a direct result of increased purchasing power parity (PPP)-has invariantly landed complex electronic equipment in the hands of illiterate and gullible citizens as well. Oblivious to the skill of ascertaining reliable information and distinguishing it from a contrived one; Indians today believe in anything and everything ornamentally served to them on their respective ‘crystal screens’. Dissemination and acceptance of morphed images, rumours et al has become commonplace. The recent Palghar lynchings, ministers deleting their tweets after realising that they were fake, GPS-tracking nano chip in Rs. 2000 note, child kidnapping related-lynchings, Najeeb Ahmed having joined ISIS, Nostradamus having predicting rise of supreme leader Narendus, etc- are all but a mere exemplar of the extent to which fake news can metastasize. 

A recent Study has categorically revealed the rising misinformation cases during the present pandemic. With the majority of the population being isolated due to the country-wide lockdown, online media became the primal source of latest happenings. Taking advantage of the same, a miniscule percent of population misused the online communication platforms. This led to a significant growth in culture, government and doctoral analysis-related fake news. It was such a heightened societal hazard that the Supreme Court itself had to intervene and express its displeasure over the same. 

Legal Perspective

The right to free dissemination of information is a penumbral right of Article 19(1) (a), which provides for the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression. Widening chasms of legal ambiguity and inconsideration exist in a serious matter like that of fake news. With no specific legislation, fake news is governed by innumerable laws which are overtly incapable of dealing with it. Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code (1860) dealing with criminal defamation can be resorted to for countering fake news. Section 153 of the IPC cautions against wantonly provoking with intent to cause riots. Another provision of the Indian Penal Code that guards against fake news is Section 295, which mandates injuring or defiling a religious place as a punishable offence. Section 66 of the Information Technology Act (2000) makes dishonestly or fraudulently doing any damage to a computer system or a computer device, punishable with a strict imprisonment. The Press Council of India (PCI) is capable of admonishing or censoring the newspaper, news agency, editor or journalist for violating journalism ethics. The National Broadcasters Association (NBA) also probes complaints against private media channels for disseminating fake news. Additionally, the Indian Broadcast Foundation (IBF) and the Broadcasting Content Complaint Council (BCCC) cater to complaints of objectionable content on the television. 

However, in April 2018, the government amended the ‘Guidelines for Accreditation of Journalists’, for tackling the growing fake news. Interestingly enough, it was retracted within 15 hours of release on allegations of being highly authoritative. It must be noted that India ranks 140 out of 180 in World Press Freedom Index (2019). Section 54 of the Disaster Management Act provides a punishment for any person making or circulating a false alarm or warning as to disaster or its severity or magnitude leading to creation of panic. This provision coupled with Section 505 (1) (b) of IPC can be used to tackle fake news during the present medical emergency. This becomes especially an urgent matter because of a number of fake online messages having claimed livelihood and mental tranquillity of innumerable people. Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh governments have been at the forefront fighting this menace with authorities acting swiftly to deal with it. But the dearth of a specific law still ails the issue.

Conclusion

With guided policy interventions by the concerned government departments and by taking a cue from the respective authorities of   Italian, French, German and Malaysian governments, the menace of fake news can be curbed effectively. Disseminating legal awareness as to the various ills of fake news and its disadvantageous impact on the society is an efficacious way of making the citizenry active with respect to the matter in hand. Usage of fake news for political and electoral gains should be highly discouraged; either by incorporating provisions in the Model Code of Conduct or by laying down specific guidelines with respect to the same. Strict liabilities must be imposed on public servants as well as citizens who engage in spreading fake news. Inclusion of the ill-wills and societal impact of fake news in school curriculum is another solution suited to the Indian milieu, as almost half of the Indian population is comprised of the young generation-most of whom are unaware of the intricacies of the issue. The real culprits behind spreading fake news must be punished instead of manhandling a visible target. A socially and politically aware population aids in the achievement of development targets whereas an ill-informed citizenry will only assist in hue, cry, and outspread of fear. Thus, it becomes quintessential to engage, educate and beware the masses against the threat of fake news. 

Cite this article as: Sanighdha, "THE FAKE NEWS PANDEMIC: A VIRAL LIE," in THE QUEST Sociolegal Review , August 21, 2020, https://thequestslr.in/2020/the-fake-news-pandemic-a-viral-lie/.

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