Given the nature of digital media, misinformation or incorrect information could spread faster, and hence concerns over holding digital platforms accountable for “fake news” are legitimate.
The government is planning to bring in a regulator for online news, as per a report in The Economic Times. Given the nature of digital media, misinformation or incorrect information could spread faster, and hence concerns over holding digital platforms accountable for “fake news” are legitimate. But the government must keep in mind a few facts as it goes about setting up a regulator for the medium. First, “fake news” is a complex beast to define. While there are genuine cases of false information spread by vested interests, news is often developing—that is, as and when facts come to light, a certain piece of news may get corroborated or change. To be sure, that doesn’t absolve the news organisation or the reporter from the responsibility of doing due diligence while reporting. But developing news is fundamentally different from deliberate misrepresentation or blatantly fake news. The problem, the Union government will do well to consider, is that such fake news travels more through social media than mainline news portals. Second, given how even a Facebook, with all the resources at its disposal, is finding it hard to crack down on fake news, it is unlikely that a regulatory body, with whatever resources are allocated to it, is likely to bring about any meaningful change. The most effective solution to fake news, perhaps, is fostering an ecosystem of fact-checking. While some platforms like FactChecker and Boom are gaining ground as credible fact-checking platforms, the need is for all stakeholders—political parties, government, business-houses, civil society organisations, etc—to invest in this. While wrong news gets called out and corrected, views are a different ball game altogether. In such cases, narratives must be challenged with counter-narratives rather than a regulator bearing down on opinion and, in the process, curbing freedom of expression; it is advisable to challenge with facts and alternative perspectives. For instance, while a recently-released World Bank-funded survey of Swachh Bharat progress reports stellar gains in rural toilet-use, a Down to Earth (DTE) analysis challenges this, drawing a contradictory inference by using other data-points reported in the survey. Rather than a regulator bearing down on DTE, it would be much more preferable if the government/the survey’s authors were to examine DTE’s contentions and answer these.