Almost limitless freedom has made social media platforms vulnerable to misuse, misinformation, and thus, “fake news”. A term that has been propagated by President Donald Trump in his jousts with the US and international media has become part of the everyday vocabulary but do we ever really stop and think of all the ways in which it manifests.

In the last few years, social media has turned out to be a huge player in influencing public discourse in the democratic process and governments worldwide are grappling with the potential fallout in every political election. Though there has been some pressure from policymakers on service/platform providers to clean up their fabulously wealthy social machines, nothing tangible has placed the responsibility of the user or platform owners to manage the abuse.

READ: Fake News Law: A Small Ripple or a Wave of Change

In India, misinformation has resulted in numerous horrific incidents where “fake news” and rumours circulated on WhatsApps have resulted in mob violence and a significant loss of lives all due to misinformation. Usually, peaceful citizens acted like vigilantes and while a lack of education and understanding within the communities can be blamed, the catalyst was social media. With more than 200 million users, India is Whatsapp’s largest market and in an effort to stop the flow in this deadly trend, credit to WhatsApp which immediately limited the number of times a message could be forwarded.

Today Facebook is using artificial intelligence (AI) to detect and delete bots, fake accounts and pages, and Google has taken various measures to modify its search ranking system to prevent fake news from entering the top results in SEO management. Google has partnered with International Fact-Checking Network to fight against fake news to ensure accurate articles are posted. There are some online companies among many other which are fighting Fake News as a business-like Snopes, Alt News, Check for spam, SM Hoax Slayer.

Fake News costs lives and can destroy businesses

Fast forward to 2020 and it is the Covid-19 fake news that has been capturing headlines. One piece of fake news that has had an overwhelming and extensive impact on India’s economy claimed that eating chicken caused COVID-19.

The impact on the poultry industry in India led to stunning losses of Rs 1,500-2000 crores a day with prices falling from 200 rupees per kg of chicken to just 70-60 rupees. Drastic action by the farmers saw day-old chicks buried alive to avoid having to continue feeding them when future demand was predicted to drop significantly. The knock-on ramifications of this huge culling impacted India’s maize and soya industries as the poultry industry was the biggest buyer of these crops so in this instant huge numbers of farmers and business were badly impacted by “fake news”.

This is just one example and a study done by Cybersecurity company CHEQ with the University of Baltimore found that the epidemic of online fake news costs $78 billion annually of the global economy. The report also analyses the direct economic cost from false news, it also estimates fake news has contributed a loss in the stock market value of about $39 billion a year.

Source: CHEQ. Analysis of direct economic cost from fake news

While the platforms need to continue to improve and make the necessary changes, some governments around the region have passed legislation to help address issues of fake news. India does not have any specific legislation and the closest available in Section 54 specific to disasters and the ambit today of false news is much beyond that.

Section 505(1)(b) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) addresses a wider canvas —spreading false and mischievous content that results in ‘fear or alarm to the public, or to any section of the public whereby any person may be induced to commit an offence against the State or against the public tranquillity’. Under this law, the convicted can be punished with imprisonment of a maximum of six years and a fine.

Clearly, fake news has consequences that have far-reaching impacts, from crippling trades to causing substantial harm to human lives. Possibly the most important thing any government can do is pass legislation that can address severe law regards to false news like that of several countries in South East Asia who have passed legislation. While the legislation enables swift action to remove fake news, the real need is to educate our citizens to recognise the threats of fake news and its deadly consequences.

Think critically when any news is circulated, fake or otherwise!!!


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