• Fake news or hoax news refer to false propaganda published under the guise of authentic news.
  • It is deliberately created to misinform the readers.
  • Fake news can be propagated through any media: print, electronic and social.
  • Fake news can be related to anything –
    • Commercially driven sensational content
    • Nation-state sponsored misinformation
    • Highly partisan news site
    • Social media itself
    • Satire or parody
  • Some checks and balances exist in the mainstream media against fake news, but social media does not have such a mechanism.
  • Elections are considered the “Maha Parv (Great festival)” of Indian democracy. And the extent to which they represent the will of the electorate depends on whether they are free and fair in practice. The two important factors which determine the integrity of the electoral process from the perspective of the electorate are:
    • Their access to accurate information about candidates/ parties; and
    • Whether the issues which are being raised while campaigning resonates with their socio-economic development and the broader national interest.

Effects of Fake News

  • With millions of people using social media in a country like India, fake news is no less than a potential disaster.
  • It can be used to influence public opinions, to gain popularity or to malign the image, character of certain individuals or opponents or to defame them.
  • It polarizes public opinion and affects political institutions, political disinformation campaigns in the Indian electoral system could lead to the deepening of existing social discord, loss of civic trust in the electoral system, and the compromise of basic democratic principles.
  • It affects social & communal harmony by spreading extremists’ ideologies especially in sensitive areas like radicalization of youths, inciting violence and hatred among the communities, swinging public opinions etc.

Role of Embedded Misinformation

  • Elections have an element of marketing in them where all the parties try to persuade customers (voters) to buy their product (candidates) through different mechanisms.
  • Like marketers, political parties strategies their election campaigning by asking what people need and sometimes this need is mis-prioritized or manufactured by putting emphasis on trivial issues.
  • In today’s era of the information age, misinformation is a key element of this electoral marketing and can create lasting narratives about the candidates and the parties.
  • In the production, packaging, repackaging and circulation of such misinformation (often embedded with fake news and divisive propaganda), the role of social media has become very crucial.
  • It has the capacity to change the central and defining themes on which elections would be fought.

However, this is not unique to India only. In US Presidential election 2016 also, there was a controversy regarding Russian involvement in disinformation and the dissemination of fake news, often promoted on social media. Also, ahead of parliamentary elections in the European Union, far-right propaganda has flooded the Facebook pages.

Key Players in Social Media’s Role in India’s Electoral Process

  1. Political parties: On this platform, they connect directly with voters across the country at a reduced cost and greater reach than traditional media. This twoway communication helps them in promoting their controlled and well-articulated viewpoint without being interrupted by journalists.
  2. Fan pages: Many times, fan pages are created for political parties/leaders. Indirectly it also allows them to disseminate their propaganda without being held accountable.
  3. Individual profiles: Today, we can also see many social media profiles where users (vigilante groups, extremists/ hardliners etc.) regularly come Live on Facebook and spew venom against others on the basis of sex, religion, caste etc. It reinforces the existing prejudices and polarizes the voters by evoking a fear psychosis.

Instances of Fake News Propaganda

  1. Union Minister of Law, Communications and Information technology stated in Lok Sabha that the 2019 General and Assembly elections reported 154 cases of fake news/false news/misinformation.
  2. Notable cases of false information include Facebook posts regarding 20 lakh EVMs gone missing, transportation of EVM without security and tweets spreading misinformation about EVMs.
  3. According to the data released, 46 cases came from Facebook, 97 from Twitter and 11 from YouTube. However, a first information report (FIR) was filed only in one case of false news over the indelible ink.

Implications of this Trend

  1. There were allegations in India that political parties have collected personal data to classify voters on the basis of their location, religion, caste, age, socioeconomic status etc. to add them to respective chat groups (Cambridge Analytica scandal).
  2. It makes the psychological engineering of voters much easier. Today, the mainstream political landscape is being shadowed by the fringe elements (gauged by the likes, shares and comments they get on social media) and many times, they are directly/indirectly associated with all the key players mentioned above.
  3. With the surge in internet penetration in India and availability of cheap data, people are relying on these online platforms for the daily news. However, digital literacy is not rising at the same speed and people are swayed by what they see online and they start sharing/ retweeting it.

Legal remedies available to tackle this menace

  • Indian Broadcast Foundation (IBF): This body was created in 1999 to look into the complaints against content aired by 24×7 channels.
  • The Press Council of India: It is created by an Act of Parliament, is a statutory body and keeps vigil on fake news. It can warn, admonish or censure the newspaper, the news agency.
  • IPC Sections 153A and 295: Under this action can be initiated against someone creating or spreading fake news if it can be termed as hate speech.
  • Broadcasting Content Complaint Council (BCCC): A complaint relating to objectionable TV content or fake news can be filed to the Broadcasting Content Complaints Council.
  • Defamation Suit: IPC Section 499 makes defamation a criminal offence. Section 500 provides for punishment for criminal defamation.
  • The Information Technology (IT) Act: It imposes an obligation on intermediaries such as search engine giant Google to remove any objectionable content pursuant to takedown notices by law enforcement agencies.
  • Contempt of Court laws: False stories about judicial proceedings would be covered by contempt of court laws and false stories about Parliament and other legislative bodies would violate privilege.
  • The Constitution of India provides a long-term solution under Article 51A (h), which says, “It shall be the duty of every citizen to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform.

Way Forward

  1. There is a need for sensitizing people towards media (including social media) consumption and helping them in differentiating misinformation from the truth. Everyone (Media, Fact checkers, Digital companies, Election Commission, Civil Society and Government) has to play their respective role in this regard.
  2. Building an informed and engaged citizenry who critically examines the information being circulated will have the maximum impact in fighting the menace of misinformation.
  3. To battle the rising tide of false information on social media, the Press Information Bureau (PIB) has decided to set up a fact-checking unit to identify and counter any fake news circulating about the government and its policies.

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