Disinformation and its Import as a Pressing Policy Issue

The free exchange of information is the lifeblood of societies in general and democracies in particular. In the early years of this century when the internet was still the preserve of a privileged albeit a substantial minority, we ran into the phenomenon of misinformation, wherein false/misleading information would be shared inadvertently by people, resulting in disharmony and unrest. Our policy apparatus had only just come to terms with this phenomenon that we were confronted with the age of Disinformation, wherein information was now being weaponized. Falsehoods, propaganda, doctored information is planted amongst a vast swathe of masses with an intent to provoke, mislead and flare passions.

In September 2019, I was entrusted with working on a private member\’s bill for the Indian Parliament which had a primary aim of tackling misinformation and disinformation. Working as a LAMP fellow with an MP, I’d received a litany of presentations/petitions from media houses and other stakeholders on the need to bring in legislation to enforce sovereign regulatory authority over existing and emergent media platforms which operated in a legal grey-zone. Months of working on the proposed law helped me grasp the intricacies of how exactly have we allowed such information landscapes to gain dominance in our societies with little to no oversight.

Disinformation increasingly serves a variety of purposes and plays out in settings, far wider than what we have always imagined. A crucial aspect of this debate has been the sites where this phenomenon plays out – private, technology social media platforms. It is increasingly these platforms which command near-absolute control over an unfathomably large share of global conversations, exchange of ideas and information, so much so that limits to free speech these days usually emanates from corporate terms of service, as much as from government censorship. Unfortunately, our existing statutes are too short-limbed to handle this completely new, volatile information ecosystem which has begun to engulf our societies. This phenomenon has real-time and unforeseen repercussions for public policy.

Background Information –

In 2011, only 10% of Indians had internet access whereas today almost 50% do fueled by a rising middle-class and cheap data. Every second, on average, 20 people are coming online for the first time globally. This rapidly multiplying reach of the internet has profound consequences. Being an emerging topic within the field of policy-making, disinformation has not been viewed through the prisms of classical public policy domains yet. This ought to be otherwise. It seriously impacts all disciplines of policymaking – health, law and order or education.

  1. Working with the Government of India on Ayushman Bharat, world’s largest healthcare initiative, I often discovered that false and misleading messages spread via WhatsApp and Facebook made parents deny vaccination to their children because of imagined fears that doctors would sterilize them. This made running immunization and other critical healthcare programs in certain states like Kerala and Assam almost impossible. Such instances of disinformation have provoked mob attacks on doctors, led by community members who received misleading messages about doctors intentionally letting a patient from their community die. The current COVID19 pandemic is simultaneously an \’infodemic\’ as well that the policy space is having to tackle and deal with.
  2. Similarly, working as an educational volunteer with TFI, India’s largest NGO in the field of education, I was tasked with taking classes for underprivileged kids from 4th and 5th standards, at a public school. I remember reading about this particular school sometime around then that had to be shut down for almost a week due to rumour spread on social media platforms that a gang of kidnappers, who abduct and sell off children, was lurking within the school premise. Consequently, the parents refused to send their children to school. So confounding was the impact that no policy intervention worked – be it the allure of free mid-day meals or the promise of enhanced policing.
  3. Past months have seen countless instances wherein false video clips on social media and WhatsApp forwards have led to mob lynching across India. State governments, upon receiving directions from the Hon’ble Supreme Court have had to draft anti-lynching legislation urgently and institute other ad hoc measures. Riots and arson, arising out of falsified information have become commonplace. As a measure of control, entire villages and towns have had to be placed under curfew.
  4. Swathes of research prove that hoaxes spread 10 times faster than credible information does. Slowly, we’ve started seeing institutional actors invoke disinformation, alternately terming it as ‘fake news’, to reject any actual evidence of their wrongdoings. There are numerous cases in India wherein politicians caught with proofs of corruption have brazened it out by labelling all evidence to be doctored. This creates an entirely new set of challenges for policymakers if we’re to preserve our polity and existing social fabrics.

Issues and Probable Solutions –

There are certain observations about disinformation and its import on policy-making that I’d like to elaborate upon while proposing policy solutions –

  • Social Media Intermediaries (SMIs) are key actors here. By very nature, they aim to maximize engagement on their platforms. Getting them to genuinely work towards the elimination of disinformation is a without impeding the free flow of conversations/information would be ideal. The key contention is that of encryption, with SMIs rightly stating that they cannot hand over data to law enforcers, because most data is encrypted and hence they themselves don’t have access to it. In fact, encryption genuinely helps protect free speech and civil liberties online.
  • A strategic compromise could be – encrypted microdata like the content of messages won’t be shared with law enforcers, but macro information like the date and time of messages, the identity of sender and recipients, much of which isn’t encrypted can be shared as and when needed. Additionally, this process needs to be institutionalized to reduce daily friction between platforms and agencies.
  • SMIs cannot legally be held responsible for the ghastly provocative and misleading content on their platforms given that they’re not the publishers themselves. But they can and must remove any such content already on their platforms when notified. While, they’re setting up content moderation centres globally to manually scrub through content and remove those which violate laws, at times these do fall short, especially given newer forms of misinformation like deepfakes which has made it almost impossible for screening algorithms to distinguish them from genuine content.
  • My proposal is that policies should mandate a fixed number of moderators per every 1,000 users, for example. This is only fair since MTCs’ revenues go up in proportion to the growth in the user base as well.
  • We need to have media literacy campaigns across schools, offices and public settings. This should be a priority. Even the smartest of individuals fall prey to disinformation, unable to navigate the new and dynamic information ecosystems they find themselves in. Earlier this year, Elon Musk’s ‘Open AI’ created an AI application that excelled at mass-producing fake news. The AI was so good at generating misinformation that the company decided not to release it!
  • One fundamental aspect of this unprecedented pace and scale of the spread of disinformation on social media platforms is the sheer ease of sharing: One tap and you\’ve shared the doctored image to all of your followers and more, alongside retaining it on your feed near permanently. We need to introduce well-designed points of friction here, like say WhatsApp limiting forwards to five at max, or twitter popping up window asking \”are you sure you want to retweet it?\” when a user tries to share an article without even having read it!
  • Most governments consider disinformation related incidents to be mere law and order issue. This is an oversight. A majority of our economic transactions take place online, same for a lot of our social interactions. Terms like ‘fake news’, ‘deepfake’ etc. need to be clearly defined in statutes. Dedicated courts should be set up to deal with offences relating to them so that they don’t get stuck in bureaucratic quagmires. Best practices ought to be shared and national policies set to tackle all aspects pertaining to this phenomenon should be evolved. For example, India’s Election Commission brought tech platforms together to sign a voluntary code of ethics to support fair and transparent parliamentary elections in the country in 2019.
  • Most government agencies globally are struggling to play catch up with the virality of disinformation, due to its unfathomable pace and ubiquity. All law enforcement and government bodies need to come online, have official Twitter/Facebook/Instagram accounts via which they can debunk fake news, deepfakes etc. credibly, in real-time. For example – the govt of Democratic Republic of Congo recently made official WhatsApp accounts to fight off fake news during the Ebola outbreak.

Conclusions –

Technologies like railroad and aeroplanes took decades to become ubiquitous, allowing ample time for regulations to be framed and several consensuses to develop. This hasn’t been the case with telecommunications and its associated use cases, especially given the nature of the beast, it’s global connotations that come with local implications. By the time some regulations take shape, technology evolves to something completely alien. This asymmetry leads to the state being responsive, not proactive.

From government task forces in Sweden to dedicated law enforcement institutions in Indonesia, to enacting of statutes in Canada to resorting to Internet shutdowns in India, governments across the world have tried a range of measures to ward off disinformation and mitigate unrest. Due care also has to be taken at all times to protect civil liberties and freedom of expression as well, given the scores of instances of governments jailing journalists on dubious pretexts of spreading disinformation. Balancing it all is the ongoing challenge we confront.

Read another article: National Education Policy 2020: some important things nobody is talking about

Yash Agarwal

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