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Disinformation: As the dust unsettles

The promised land with technological advancements and open internet was the one which was open, equal and inclusive and not the divisive one which we are living in now. To build that future, we must collectively act together to find solutions and be brave enough to cross the lines and redefine what we have accepted as norms – and if we delay our move, our opponents will inevitably take us to a point of no return.

As we await the American presidential elections and its ramifications for democracies across the world, a key determinant that will overshadow debates on good governance, climate change, containment of the pandemic, universal healthcare, immigration, unemployment, international order and an impending economic recession – is the influence of disinformation. It almost seems surreal that psychologically driven campaigns that are deliberately intended to mislead people by tapping into their existing biases, divisions and fear, is the kingmaker in a world that once seemed to have opened up for endless possibilities with the digital revolution. 

In a world that is now ruled by information wars, who holds the reins? There are many players, ranging from international political propagandists to domestic hate groups. In the case of Russian meddling in the 2016 US elections, a major player was Yevgeny Prigozhin who financed it through the Internet Research Agency (IRA). In addition to running troll armies to attack democracies in the digital space, Prigozhin, a businessman allied with President Vladimir Putin, also runs mercenaries in conflict zones such as Syria, Sudan and Libya among other countries. Similar to the mercenaries who are trained for real wars, online disinformation campaigns are carried out by individuals who are professionally trained, organized and well-financed.  

The counter approach to disinformation is unorganized and disproportionately focused on the role of platforms rather than having international agencies and national governments take stringent legal actions against those who actively engage in propagating disinformation. Earlier this month, a travel ban and asset freeze was imposed on Prigozhin by the EU for undermining peace in Libya and breaking the UN arms embargo. But with respect to his crimes related to disinformation we are yet to see concrete punitive measures. While a US grand jury, in 2018, indicted Prigozhin for interfering in elections, charges filed against him by Robert Mueller were dropped before the trial, in 2020. 

At the same time, the tendency to relegate responsibilities to social platforms is as dangerous as it is problematic. Since social platforms are equipped with better resources, expertise, artificial intelligence and other tech tools, they are expected to do more – to identify and stop the spreading of hateful content that could have real world consequences. However, the problem arises when platforms unilaterally decide which content should stay and which should go. We now have clear evidence that even when content gets flagged for violating the community standards, it stays on certain platforms due to business and political reasons. This is precisely why the accountability and transparency of the content moderation by the platforms are being questioned. Lack of technical expertise coupled with the reluctance to take a firm stand on issues related to freedom of speech is driving governments towards failure at taking a concerted effort to address disinformation issues. 

In India, disinformation is mostly manufactured by domestic players and propagated through mainstream news channels and social media platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter. Most of the disinformation in social media is propagated by political parties with dedicated teams to attack political opponents and minorities which has led to an unprecedented wave of violence, leading to even targeted murders. According to Microsoft’s Digital Civility Index 2019, Indians were the most likely population to encounter fake news and internet hoaxes. While there are no specific laws to tackle fake news in India, IPC sections 153 and 295 can be invoked if the fake news comes under hate speech. A recent notification brought out by the Information and Broadcasting ministry for cancelling the Press Information Bureau (PIB) accreditation of journalists promoting fake news was immediately withdrawn after a massive outrage that hinted at an attack on freedom of press. The Government then passed the buck to the Press Council of India (PCI) and News Broadcasters Association (NBA) to deal with fake news. In case of social media platforms, they are exempted from any liability for third-party content through 79-II of Information Technology Act, 2000. Amendments are underway to make the social media platforms responsible for non-user generated content. 

In Kerala, we have been working on tackling disinformation for the past three years by building a framework for testing different strategies in collaboration with various stakeholders. In 2017, Governance Innovation Labs conducted the first public consultation for fighting fake news in Kerala at the Trivandrum Press Club with the participation of citizens, journalists, lawyers and AI experts. A survey on the impact of fake news along with the report on the consultation was published for initiating public discourse on the need for corrective action. With digital awareness campaigns and literacy programs, we worked with various agencies to initiate and test solutions for the disinformation problems by curating and debunking major fake news, and also drafting and publishing a disinformation bill for Kerala. During the pandemic, in response to the rise in disinformation, we did a campaign to call out advertisers to stop funding fake news. In addition to nudging the advertisement industry to disassociate from fake news, we have also set up a legal team to provide assistance to citizens to sue the media for broadcasting fake news. When faced with legal and monetary consequences for propagating disinformation, media firms ensure stringent fact-checking measures. Augmenting these measures, Kerala government recently constituted a fact-check division to identify and take time-bound legal measures along with setting up internet information cells in every district. The journalist community in Kerala also came together and published a series on the need for improving the quality of journalism. At Governance Innovation Labs, we continue our efforts in designing, testing and implementing (and failing at times) new solutions for addressing the disinformation crisis. 

The promised land with technological advancements and open internet was the one which was open, equal and inclusive and not the divisive one which we are living in now. To build that future, we must collectively act together to find solutions and be brave enough to cross the lines and redefine what we have accepted as norms – and if we delay our move, our opponents will inevitably take us to a point of no return.

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