The fake news conundrum

Nikhil Bhave
Sunday, 29 July 2018

Social media is once again back in the bad news. A rash of lynchings based on fake WhatsApp forwards has shaken the country. This has led to a sort of showdown between the Central government and the Facebook-owned messaging app, with the former serving a notice to the latter over the forwards feature, and are under fire for failing to curb the rash of deadly assaults and deaths over patently false information.

Social media is once again back in the bad news. A rash of lynchings based on fake WhatsApp forwards has shaken the country. This has led to a sort of showdown between the Central government and the Facebook-owned messaging app, with the former serving a notice to the latter over the forwards feature, and are under fire for failing to curb the rash of deadly assaults and deaths over patently false information.

Its parent company is not doing that well either. After the Cambridge Analytica scandal, it suspended services of yet another analytic firm. And an interview by founder Mark Zuckerberg unleashed yet another firestorm. When questioned by journalist Kara Swisher about elements like holocaust deniers. He said this: “What we will do is we’ll say, “Okay, you have your page, and if you’re not trying to organise harm against someone, or attacking someone, then you can put up that content on your page, even if people might disagree with it or find it offensive. But that doesn’t mean that we have a responsibility to make it widely distributed in News Feed.”

One can see why this ticked many off. On other fronts, there is now talk of establishing monitors to curb fake news and misinformation.

However, here is a question: at what point does monitoring become censorship? Also, what can be done to curb people from reacting to fake news without curbing the basic laws of freedom of expression? There is an intangible, and very very thin line separating the two, and it can be easily crossed. China has been doing it brazenly for years.

As with any other term, Freedom of Expression (FoE) has both legal and an undefined form. In India, the legal format is loaded with riders thanks to the first amendment to the Constitution. The 1951 amendment curbed the absolute freedom of speech by placing ‘reasonable restrictions’ on it.

As far as the legal definition of freedom of expression is concerned, it is a codified concept, which may not be everyone’s cup of tea. If the ones publishing the content are allied with the rulers or share their ideology, there is every chance that the law may turn a blind eye to things. Therefore, we all must ensure that we do not provide further scope for snooping by the authorities.

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