Arrested developments

Thanks to social media, misinformation, the noun that has transitioned in the post-truth world as “fake news,” has become an endemic issue in all societies. Ruling dispensations have struggled to frame responses to this phenomenon, and the tools they choose to do so reflect their levels of self-confidence or paranoia. In that context, the recommendation of an inter-ministerial panel headed by the home secretary for criminal proceedings against social media company chiefs for spreading fake news via their platforms suggests an extreme reaction. The suggestion lacks merit for several reasons. One, the definition of fake news is not always clear. A viral WhatsApp message suggesting men distributing sweets to kids are kidnappers is unambiguously false and malicious. Equally, as Donald Trump has demonstrated, fake news also lies in the eyes of the beholder. Mr Trump frequently berates routine reporting — such as of his infamous press conference in Helsinki, or of his son’s meeting with an anti-Clinton, Putin-affiliated lawyer during the campaign — as fake.

In India, the current regime tends to see multiple forwards of articles or comments critical of the government as an assault on its status, and by extension, fake. In the absence of a clear definition — a controversial process at best — holding heads of social media platforms such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and sundry payment apps with chat facilities, liable to arrest is akin to chasing phantoms. Two, the move is unlikely to encourage social media companies to comply with the government’s strictures to these platforms to set up teams and office set-ups in India. Predictably, news of this recommendation has these organisations running scared, with those that do have India set-ups fearing an exodus of their managerial staff. Three, although the government has valid reasons to rein in viral misinformation, it is targeting the wrong enemy. True, it is via social media platforms that lynchings of Muslims and Dalits and other atrocities gain traction, and earned the government national and international opprobrium. But social media platforms can hardly be accused of being perpetrators of these crimes. For that, politicos need to look to the culture that has been fostered by increasingly unrestrained rhetoric and hate speech, weakly condemned by the country’s leaders. Social media merely amplifies this culture and offers the world an uncomfortable micro-portrait of Indian society. Politicians who orchestrate the arrest of a student shouting insults at them suggest an inordinate sensitivity to criticism.

Indeed, it is hard to understand why the government does not leverage social media platforms to vigorously counter the divisiveness that has afflicted India. Four, if the government wants to attract more foreign investment, this stricture sends out quite the wrong signal. No foreign company will want to send personnel to a country where arrest warrants can be issued on whimsical grounds. There is, undoubtedly,a case for the government to move towards suppressing patently fake information, but doing so calls for a light touch and an understanding that a free press demands tolerating criticism as much as basking in praise. Large swathes of the mainstream print and broadcast media have succumbed to pressure for positive coverage leaving social media as the last bastion of unfettered opinion. If these platforms are suborned with such threats, the future of India’s democracy is bleak indeed.   

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