Socialising social media

The past two decades have seen a phenomenal growth in the use of the Internet in India — from about 5 million users in 2000 to more than 500 million at present. However, the manner in which the Internet is used by service providing platforms is far less regulated than the activities of corresponding traditional providers of these services. 

On November 9, the government issued a notification that films and audio-visual programmes made available by online content providers and news and current affairs content on online platforms will be under the purview of the Information and Broadcasting Ministry. When it comes to films, the intention presumably is to apply the same censorship standards as are applied to movies meant for exhibition in cinemas. However, the potential impact of the notification on another major growth area, the provision of news on Internet platforms is not clear.

The Internet is fast becoming a major source of news and information compared to the more traditional sources like print media or newer sources like television. This is welcome because of the ease of access that it provides. But it has a major downside in that the sources of news on Internet portals like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube or WhatsApp are not properly curated and have become a major instrument for spreading fake news widely and at low cost.

The India Digital News Report produced by the Reuters Institute at Oxford did a survey that covered mainly urban English-speaking respondents. This survey found that online news generally (56 per cent), and social media specifically (28 per cent), have outpaced print (16 per cent) as the main source of news among respondents under 35, whereas respondents over 35 still mix online and offline media to a greater extent. Smartphones were the main device for 68 per cent of the respondents to access online news and 52 per cent reported getting news on WhatsApp, which, though not a news site, is a major part of our fake news problem.

A BBC research report about fake news in India released in December 2018 (1) states that a significant portion of the news being shared was political, and that right-wing networks were much more organised than the left when it came to spreading fake stories. According to this report, socio-political identity plays a key role in sharing of fake news, especially for those on the right, who share a common narrative rather than the more fragmented left. It argues that those most engaged with politics also seem to take the most interest in sources of fake news. It also states that “more of the Twitter handles that have published fake news sit in the pro-BJP cluster, than in the anti-BJP cluster.”

The penchant for fake news amongst political and social extremists is not new. But what previously would have spread slowly through word-of-mouth or disreputable media sources can now spread fast through social media and online communication sites, which can also allow the protection of anonymity.

The culpability of these social media and communication services goes beyond turning a blind eye to what is going through their portals. A recent Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma, which has interviews with several people who were involved in the development of these and similar sites, makes more serious allegations. Essentially, the business model of these sites is based on attracting advertisement revenue and that drives them to do what is necessary to maximise the number of users and the time they spend on the site. They do this with algorithms that use information about what you do online to feed you with material that fits in with your likes and prejudices.

There is a more sinister angle to this algorithm-based strategy of maximising users. When these portals provide opportunities for extremists, they end up getting many more users who either support or oppose these fanatics and that is why they often look away when influential politicos spread lies and prejudice. In the words of Guillaume Chaslot, a former engineer at YouTube, “It worries me that an algorithm that I worked on is actually increasing polarisation in society. But from the point of view of watch time, this polarisation is extremely efficient at keeping people online.”

Illustration: Ajay Mohanty
How can these social media platforms be made more responsible for how they are used?

The design of the Internet is libertarian and has given a free hand to social media sites like Facebook, open access platforms like YouTube and supposedly communication sites like WhatsApp to bypass the usual media norms and allow clients to spread falsehood and virulence with impunity. They cannot claim to be communication service providers like a telephone company. Unlike the phone companies, they know what their users are communicating and, in fact, use this knowledge to feed users with posts that will keep them hooked to the site.

The major social media platforms are run by profit-oriented commercial enterprises, mainly based in the United States. The time has come for setting certain standards of due diligence, which the platforms must follow to ensure that they do not become instruments for political and social polarisation.

How is this to be secured? First, by codifying the required standards of scrutiny and due diligence in a law applicable to any Internet portal that has user-defined content. The platforms must be required to remove immediately any post that’s illegal, incendiary or proven false but has slipped through their scrutiny and due diligence mechanism. Second, by setting up an independent agency to monitor social media sites using web crawlers to identify posts that are illegal, incendiary or proven false. Third, by requiring the same agency to examine and approve the algorithms used by the media sites to retain users. Fourth, establishing a semi-judicial mechanism to judge violations of the standards set.

While doing this, the citizen’s right to freedom of expression has to be protected by a firewall between the independent agency and the government in power to avoid political misuse of social media control.  Perhaps this could be done by initially relying on self-regulation and counting on the competition between social media companies to ensure that the self-regulation is effective.

In a democracy, freedom of expression is important. However, it is equally important to protect the public from lies that polarise society. That is the case for regulating social media platforms that disseminate news.

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