Fake News - The Fix: RSTV - The Big Picture

Fake news is a big problem that gets easily transferred due to misuse of latest technologies, resulting in many untoward incidents which has even gone to the extent of loss of lives. This article helps one understand how big is the problem of fake news, and how Social media companies and mainstream publications can tackle this burgeoning problem.

Aspirants would find this article very helpful while preparing for the IAS Exam.


Anchor: Frank Rausan Pereira
Speakers: Rahul Easwar, Author & Activist; Srijan Pal Singh, IT Expert; J. Sai Deepak, Advocate, Supreme Court; Jiten Jain, Director, Voyager Infosec

Importance of this Episode – Discussion on Fake News

  1. In a stern message to WhatsApp, the government recently said that the messaging platform will need to set up a local entity and find a tech solution to trace the origin of fake messages on its platform.
  2. Union minister of information technology Ravi Shankar Prasad, after meeting WhatsApp head Chris Daniels, said the Facebook-owned messaging application has contributed significantly to India’s digital story but it needs to find solutions to deal with “sinister developments” like mob lynching and revenge porn.
  3. Daniels’s visit to India and his meeting with Prasad follows more than a dozen killings across India this year in mob lynchings fuelled by rumours circulating on WhatsApp.
  4. The government last month warned the company that it can’t evade responsibility if its service is used to spread false information.
  5. Meanwhile, media reports said that WhatsApp has agreed to form a corporate entity in India and develop technological tools designed to stop the spread of fake news and other repugnant messages that could foment trouble in the country.
  6. This edition of the Big Picture will take a look at the issue of fake news and how to fix it.

Analysis by the Experts

Who is to blame for this fake news problem? Is it a policy issue or is it due to the lackadaisical approach by the social media companies or is it a combination of both?

J. Sai Deepak, Advocate, Supreme Court weighed in with his points here.

  1. Social media companies present themselves as convenient scapegoats in such issues. Most of this content falls under the definition of what is known as UGC (User Generated Content). Further, at least 60-70% of the content that is generated on social media websites and even on platforms such as WhatsApp, is all user generated. Thus, it makes very little sense to hold these people responsible because at the end of the day, they are only providing a channel, a conduit, a medium or a platform for dissemination and nothing beyond that.
  2. If the Government is really serious about fake news, then they must start with mainstream publications, where there is editorial control where the President of the editors guild has himself contributed to the spreading of fake news.
  3. If we do not reign in mainstream publications which can take editorial control and editorial responsibility for the content that they produce themselves, what example are we really setting by going after social media platforms or intermediaries so to speak?
  4. Facebook or WhatsApp is at best an intermediary. Are they generating the content? No. Do they have an encryption policy in place? Yes. Is that a necessary feature of their particular application itself? Yes. In which case, are we now trying to ask them to create a backdoor in their encryption policy, to keep a watch on what people do? This is not the kind of example that we should set. If we really want to set an example, then we should start with mainstream publications, newspapers, television channels, etc. We should start here and then go after intermediaries such as WhatsApp or Facebook, if necessary.
  5. But at the end of the day, asking these companies to develop technologies to filter content out is not right. At the end of the day, companies can do only so much.
  6. Perhaps for issues such as Child Porn, terror related activities, one can ask them to filter out the content. But, can we ask an intermediary to police content? And also be the adjudicator of the nature of the content and its legality along with its potential to create trouble?
  7. But having said this, when it comes to social media platforms, what they rely upon is community support. Which is when somebody realizes that what is being spread is either fake or has the capacity to incite passion, then the same is reported to this particular entity and this entity should be given a certain period of time to either act on it or escalate it.
  8. It is important to address the issue of fake news holistically. It can’t be addressing fake news only on a particular platform.

What about the fake news that comes out on mainstream publications on an almost regular basis?

Srijan Pal Singh, IT Expert then weighed in with his arguments here:

It is true that much of the content is user generated. However, the platforms shouldn’t be allowed to just shake their hands off and say that they are not responsible. Fake news spreads when it is paid for and when it is promoted. There are bots operating on Twitter, there are bots operating on Facebook which are not humans. They are in huge numbers- to the extent that estimates say that 15% of all Twitter accounts are actually not humans, they are bots.
How does a company like Twitter or Facebook with the best AI technologies, allow such bots to continue? This has been going on for years. The main source of revenue for social media platforms is basically paid posts, wherein, they allow users to put money behind posts and make them viral. Thus, they are making money out of this model. Thus, if they are making money out of this model, they better be responsible for the kind of content which is going there. Thus, they need to be more accountable, if fake news on their platforms goes viral.

How big a problem is fake news and how do we deal with it?

Rahul Easwar, Author & Activist weighed in with his arguments.

Fake news is a huge problem. We live in a kind of half-truth world, where people are using clever half-truths to create narratives. We have seen the reports of at least a dozen people losing their lives because of WhatsApp circulated news. We cannot allow a situation in India where news circulated on WhatsApp can become lethal and fatal. We have incidents of fake news where many people from the Northeastern states of our country living in Bangalore felt threatened and wanted to leave the city. At the end of the day fake news will consume us. Thus, we need to have some checks and balances and WhatsApp and Facebook can provide their own tools. Yes, we are at liberty to create our own narratives- these narratives can differ as well, but at the end of the day, one cannot be blatantly lying. It is hoped that the Government and social media companies like Facebook and WhatsApp will have some kind of a mechanism where they will see that hatred, bigotry, inciting violence, etc. can be sorted out and be discouraged in one way or the other either using their technological expertise or through some kind of monitoring and not policing.

The Government has made a few demands as far as WhatsApp is concerned to deal with the issue of fake news. It has asked for a corporate entity in India; develop tools to stop the spread of fake news; comply with data localisation rules; financial transactions of Indians have to be stored on Indian servers; and that a grievance redressal mechanism has to be setup with an officer appointed to deal with the complaints are some of the demands as far as the Government is concerned. When we talk about tools to stop the spread of fake news, what is the kind of technology that can be used to deal with this problem?

Jiten Jain, Director, Voyager Infosec weighed in with his arguments here.

I don’t think social media companies are alone responsible for this mess. We as a society and the Government are equally responsible. Secondly, we have been for long blaming the Government for not doing enough to deal with this problem of fake news or not doing enough to police these companies. We must realize that whenever in the past the Government has attempted to monitor social media, to figure out which people are spreading such viral fake content and rumours, the moment any kind of policy is being deliberated upon or any technology to counter the same is being conceived, there are allegations from different sections of society that the Government is attempting to now spy on the citizens, etc.

Thus, we must understand that when the Government talks about the monitoring of social media, as long as they are monitoring open source content, like one’s Facebook wall, Twitter feed, Instagram feed, they are well within their rights and they must absolutely do it to deal with this problem of fake news. If they talk about monitoring one’s personal chats, one’s personal content, personal emails, personal WhatsApp conversations, then, there is a problem and that can be called spying. As long as one wants to do open-source monitoring, one should be allowed to do it. Otherwise, who will know as to who is spreading what?

Further, in this entire debate, one fundamental narrative is that what constitutes fake news?
Is it rumours of mob lynching? Is it rumours of kidnapping? Is it mob photographs? Is it revenge porn? Is it propaganda? Is is manipulated facts that are quoted out of context?  We should ensure that we differentiate between all these things- such as fake content, manipulated content (this should not constitute fake news as this is propaganda at the end of the day), and something which is a half-truth where the person concerned has not even verified facts, for example: people sending you messages in the morning about Ayurvedic treatments; or people sending you historical facts without verifying the same- that is a different category altogether.

Companies such as WhatsApp, and other social media groups have always hidden behind the garb of privacy whenever it comes to issues like fake news in the past. Is there a conflict between the two? 

J. Sai Deepak, Advocate, Supreme Court weighed in with his points here.

It is important to know that law functions on definition. Thus what is the line that one would choose to draw between what is fact and what is fake news? Secondly, it is easy for us to be swayed by extremes to take a position with respect to fake news. But what are you going to do in those situations wherein it is difficult to separate fact from fiction. Thirdly, the aspect of privacy is not a bogey or is not a convenient wall for these entities to hide behind. Privacy is a legitimate right. Today, Privacy is recognized under Article 21; further the Right to Privacy is available to a person- the judgement does not say “citizen”; it says that the Right to Privacy is available to a person.

This also extends to a juristic person. Thus, if it is a juristic person, it means that the Right to Privacy equally applies to corporate entities as well, and companies as well.

 What is a Juristic Person?

It is a human being (natural person) or a group of human beings, a corporation, a partnership, an estate, or other legal entity (artificial person or juristic person) recognized by law as having rights and duties.

Thus, what is the Government’s position going to be with respect to the kind of restrictions that it imposes on companies with respect to the Right to Privacy and with respect to their data?
Next, who owns the data whose monitoring and supervision we seek? Thirdly what we need to understand is, when these people promote something, and when these people merely provide a conduit for the dissemination of information, these are two different aspects. Thus, if social media companies decide to promote something or sponsor something to boost a certain post, out of which they make a certain amount of money, perhaps we can hold them responsible with respect to this. But, are we saying that we will limit the category of fake news to only these kind of posts?

Anything that is fake and has the tendency to go viral, and is not fact and has the ability to rouse passions, is fake news. Thus, how are you going to monitor something so subjective? Tomorrow, if one decides to say something over the genealogy of the Nehru-Gandhi family, and perhaps I am picking and choosing facts here and there, what will one do with respect to that? That is history according to someone- now if there are alternative versions of all sorts of history that are possible, how do you separate fact from fiction? Thus, most importantly, what we have to realize is that when we have technology in our hands, and we are driven by user-generated content, and we have technologies that facilitate mass permeation like Facebook and WhatsApp, this is the kind of risk that one would have to embrace necessarily. It is not true that we must not have a policy response to this and that we must not have an institutional or a Government response to this; we must naturally have these things. But, the response should not be knee-jerk and cosmetic and it should not make an example out of one particular entity.
The primary source of information for most people is still mainstream media and not WhatsApp. WhatsApp is only an alternative source.

Srijan Pal Singh, IT Expert then weighed in with his arguments here:

There are institutions to supervise the content of mainstream media, however, their efficacy can be questioned. But, there is absolutely nothing when it comes to social media, thus, having something like a press council of India for instance, or something of the same level for social media, would not be a bad idea. The problem right now is that social media platforms are without any standards, and although a large part of the content is user generated, but if we look at the US elections, there was an entire industry that was creating fake content. It was not mainstream media that was doing it, it was some village in Macedonia, which had all kinds of young people who were generating fake content and the number of stories circulated in favour of Donald Trump was about 3 crores. 3 crore stories were shared about him when compared to Hillary Clinton which was around 70 lakhs.

Any regulation on mainstream media is welcome, but it will only apply to mainstream media in India. How will one regulate the content which comes from across the border? For that you need to tweak the social media. Thus, we need to have a balance on both.

J. Sai Deepak, Advocate, Supreme Court weighed in with his points here.

Take the instance of a multinational corporation which is in the business of creating these kind of applications which is used for the spread of information. Data can start from one jurisdiction and flow towards multiple jurisdictions. That means the same data must be subjected to the municipal laws of each country through which the data passes. How does one expect that particular entity to comply with the laws of 100 different countries? One’s simple argument, in this case, would be that if one can earn from 100 different countries, then one must be able to comply with the laws of 100 different countries. But is this practical? Thus, it is not so that the origin of that so-called fake news be India- it can come from outside. It could find itself into India, and then after that, it can just go viral. Thus, what are we going to police? Its entry into India?

Jiten Jain, Director, Voyager Infosec weighed in with his arguments here.

Technologies are allowed to curb fake news, but it is the question of investment of time, money and the will to do so. Let’s consider WhatsApp: the moment we send a photo or a video on WhatsApp, the first things the platform does before sending it is to strip it of its metadata. They delete all the information as to from which location the photo was taken, the forensic information which is used by any law enforcement agency is deleted from that photo under the name of privacy. Thus, whenever WhatsApp gets a new, freshly uploaded content, a unique hash should be created and all the forensic and metadata information of that photo should be stored on the servers of the company and not released into the public domain. This is because in the future, if the fake news spreads, then law enforcement should be able to contact the social media company and ask for the forensic evidence. Thus, this is technologically possible. Today, YouTube and Gmail is end-to-end encrypted, but if a video of RSTV is uploaded on YouTube, then the person uploading the video will get a warning saying that the video is copyrighted and that it is the IPR content of RSTV and that one cannot make ad revenue out of it. They match every single frame against previously uploaded videos. Similarly, if someone is uploading videos on child porn, terrorism, one has the technological capability of detecting it.

Rahul Easwar, Author & Activist weighed in with his arguments.

There is nothing called absolute freedom. There is only responsible liberty and constitutionally guaranteed liberty. We all have certain lakshman rekhas that we shouldn’t cross. We all know the reality that there is fake news on the ground. Yes, there are many grey areas which need to be clarified. But, we should be guarded against the evil that fake news can have an effect where people are lynched and killed on the street. We don’t live in an absolutely nihilistic society. There are some mutually agreeable guidelines that we have to find. There are some guidelines that we must follow and the Government has taken the right step.

J. Sai Deepak, Advocate, Supreme Court weighed in with his points here.

In the transaction and question where the information is being spread, if the entity is entitled to protection as an intermediary, then an intermediary is immune under the law. This is the position of the law as far as today is concerned. If the entity chooses to interfere with that particular piece of information, the moment it does so in any manner, it becomes responsible for interference and transmission of that particular information; this is evident when we read Section 79 of the Information Technology Act which was the subject matter of the Shreya Singhal case. Thus, if one is asking these intermediaries to interfere with the data, then you are asking them to let go of their status as intermediaries, and therefore, one is asking them to let go of their immunity which is available under the law. This is something that we need to discuss.

Concluding Remarks

  1. As a way forward there are some steps that we can adopt. Suppose we come across an image which has a popular news logo on it, and it is some news about lynching, etc. that is most probably inflammatory. What we should do is that we drag this image and put the same into the Google image reverse search which would tell me the source of that image. It is not that difficult, the Artificial Intelligence (AI) exists. One is surprised that WhatsApp doesn’t do it on its own, and that we have to do it on behalf of WhatsApp to verify for myself. Thus, the technological tools already exist. It took Facebook two years to tell us that the Cambridge Analytica issue happened, and it took Twitter three years to actually start removing fake accounts which it has started now.
  2. People need to be educated- just like how we have been taught at school and at college levels as to what are the ethical standards, what are the standards of plagiarism, for instance, we now need to teach children and young people on social media literacy.
  3. The government asking WhatsApp to form a corporate entity in India and develop technological tools designed to stop the spread of fake news and other repugnant messages, is primarily for two fundamental reasons: a) one is that whenever we give a notice to these companies under Indian law or Indian courts, they refuse to comply saying that we are American companies and that we are not here, so we will not respond; with this step, WhatsApp will have to comply with Indian laws from now on b) the second is about data localisation: WhatsApp is very soon going to launch a payment service with Indian banks based on BHIM and Aadhar, thus it is in the interest of the nation to avoid any controversy such as financial surveillance. Thus, all the transactional data of Indian customers should be stored on Indian servers within the jurisdiction of the Indian Government. This is a welcome step. Finally, all social media companies, and instant messaging companies should be forced to ensure that they should store the metadata of all the content that is uploaded and by whom; they should store the details of the source.
  4. Social media literacy is the way ahead. Fake news which is turning into hate news shouldn’t be promoted. Some kind of a mechanism, which can be a combination of technology, social media awareness, being responsible netizens, like we are being responsible citizens can be done. Fake news is fake news, regardless of whichever platform it comes from. Thus, when we choose to craft a policy for this particular issue, one should not do it only for the purposed of social media, one should address it holistically.

Further Reading:
UPSC aspirants are advised to read the latest available press-releases available on the Press Information Bureau Website surrounding the larger issue of fake news.

Read more Gist of Rajya Sabha TV to help you ace current affairs in the IAS exam.

The above details would help candidates prepare for UPSC 2020.

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