Only fact-checking and regulation can help us fight the ‘Fake News vs Free Press’ battle

Stringent laws against fake news is not the answer, since scope for potential misuse by the State will be too high, resulting it becoming a tool to silence free press.

As charted out by UNESCO (United Nations Economic Social and Cultural Organisation), the three-fold purpose of the World Press Freedom Day – held annually on May 3 – is:

“To evaluate press freedom around the world; to defend the media from attacks on their independence; and to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession.”

The significance of the free press as a checking mechanism holding the government accountable in a democracy, is common knowledge and indisputable fact. However, as the day to evaluate global press freedom draws closer, the most significant threat posed to free press is undoubtedly that of ‘fake news’.

The UN in 2017 stated that ‘fake news’ was on the rise, and the credibility of media was in an increasingly problematic position in a ‘post-truth’ world – a world where people are more likely to accept an argument based on their emotions and beliefs, as opposed to one based on objective fact.

The phrase ‘fake news’ is commonly favoured by US President Trump, and instances of it becoming a hindrance to honest reporting are that of several reporters being arrested for merely covering riots that followed the former’s Presidential inauguration and protests against the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline in February 2017.

In the current societal context, the idea that one could be misinformed is considered abominable. When governments label media outlets as participating in ‘unethical reporting’ and accuse them of spreading ‘fake news’, it severely undermines the society’s faith in news reporting.

Social media and fake news

Until recently, the majority of fake news circulated was on social media largely through the platform of outreach afforded by means of Facebook and WhatsApp.

Fake news on social media can be characterised as misinformation and hoaxes that go viral on social media, commonly leading to unfortunate consequences.

The infamous ‘Nano-GPS chip’ fake story which gathered momentum on WhatsApp and was later broadcasted by a legitimate TV channel as genuine news led to widespread amusement in the country in late 2016. In several other cases, such as the following, however the consequences have been severe. In late 2015, Mohammad Akhlaq, a farm worker in Uttar Pradesh was murdered by a mob in his village due to a morphed fake picture which showed Mohammad slaughtering a cow – when in reality his family had stored mutton in his house, for later consumption. This came at a time when the government had freshly instituted the beef ban, and the outrage it sparked led to Mohammad’s pitiful death.

What must necessarily be noted about the mindset in reaction to such hoaxes is that in the current political context, anyone who fails to actively prove themselves as nationalist, is considered anti-national. The reason levels of tolerance are declining on a national scale is because nobody wants the stigma of being ‘anti-national’ attached to themselves.

The Indian context

While the year 2017 saw mainstream media give social media a run for its money in terms of circulating fake news and consequently undermining society’s faith in news reporting, the most significant aspect of fake news is where it becomes a tool to drive home a political agenda – an example of which is clear from the fake news circulated about seizing assets of criminal mastermind Dawood Ibrahim, by the UAE government.

In this instance, the BJP itself tweeted this as a major diplomacy breakthrough on the part of PM Modi, citing not the government but the media as its ‘source’. Over the course of the next five days, the words changed from ‘seized’ to ‘planning to seize’ until the UAE authorities officially denied any such event.

The Rise of Alt News

The timing of the rise of Alt News – a platform started by Ahmedabad-based engineer Pratik Sinha – is interesting as the year 2017 saw mainstream media largely willing favour the Narendra Modi government.

The significance of the platform is immense because it comes at a time when social media is still at a nascent stage and persons with new access to these outlets, are vulnerable to believing what they read on these outlets simply because it now becomes their only source of news.

In 2017, an official document by the Modi Government claimed that floodlights had been set up for hundreds of miles along the tense India-Pakistan border, in an effort to help guard against terrorist infiltrators, along with a picture of what did appear to be a floodlit fence separating two barren lands. This claim was busted by Sinha within 24 hours, by proving that the image was in actuality of a fence that separates the North African Spanish enclave of Ceuta from Morocco; the giveaway being the light reflecting off a water body – the Mediterranean Sea – in the background.

Interestingly Sinha’s late father, Mr. Mukul Sinha was the renowned human rights activist who co-founded the Jan Sangharsh Manch, a civil rights group representing victims of the communal riots in Gujarat in 2002 – when Narendra Modi was Chief Minister of the State.

Legislation not the only solution

The word ‘fake news’ doesn’t find place in law. However it gets covered under existing laws due to the immense amount of it generated on electronic platforms. Consequently, anyone who publishes or transmits in addition to causing publication in an electronic form, information which is likely to corrupt the minds of people, can be charged for an offence under Section 67 of the IT Act. Punishment for the same is 3 years imprisonment and a Rs. 5 lakh fine. Yet, people get away with committing the offence because it is a bailable offence and most people fail to follow through after initial complaints.

Why stringent legislative solution against fake news is not the answer, is because of the issue of loose interpretation. The scope for potential misuse will be too high, and it can very easily be cited as a tool to silence free press.

Fact-checking at every step

What we need is for every piece of news to be scrutinised for authenticity and validity and the only way to do so is to bring up more fact-checking, ‘claim-busting’ mechanisms, such as Alt News provides as a platform, the necessary fact-check against tall claims made – in particular, by the government – and the media in general.

The reason behind this being the same as for most arguments – indisputable fact is tough to deny.

Shreya Mohapatra is a law student currently pursuing LLB at ILS College in Pune.

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