The problem has to be resolved by the political class and the electorate, with judicial intervention, media self-regulation, fact-checking and civil society playing a facilitative role.
CJI NV Ramana’s lament last week that social media and online platforms have been purveyors of fake news, often with a communal slant, deserves attention not just from the government and media-SROs, but also the masses. For one, fake and communal ‘news’ is used to by many to validate their own hate and bigotry broadcast through social media platforms.
For another, the hope is that such a statement, coming from an institution like the Supreme Court, would spur people into at least healthy scepticism, if not active resistance, when it comes to such content circulating on the internet. That said, the CJI perhaps missed the woods for the trees in blaming social media and “web portal”, especially when most of the TV media and a section of the vernacular print media have become willing tools in the hands of those in power and continue stoking communal fire in the electoral interest of the latter, whether or not at their behest.
It has been almost a sustained war-campaign, whether it was the coverage of the Tablighi Jamaat meeting in Delhi against the backdrop of Covid-19—the CJI’s comments came during the hearing of a clutch of petitions seeking action against communalised coverage of this by the TV media—or the malevolent commentary that marked the TV news coverage of the Tanishq ad featuring a Hindu woman married into a Muslim family.
That even the likes of the Tata Group had to choose prudent meekness in face of this hate-mongering—the Tanishq ad was withdrawn following the backlash—puts the political and societal context that empowers this section of the media (and this section of the media validates in return) in sharp relief. A regulatory answer—say, censorship imposed and enforced by the state—is hardly the answer. So, even as the CJI rightly calls out a section of the media for forwarding a communal agenda, framing the problem as one of a lack of control over “over fake news and slandering in web portals”, and the government citing the controversial Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 in response is hardly the solution.
There is a tightrope that needs to be walked on regulating the media, the freedom of expression and the right of the citizenry to be informed; the heavy-footed approach of the regulation already in play can’t do that. Indeed, this approach will likely be more detrimental to the fabric of the society given any ruling dispensation will use it to kill criticism and dissent while allowing a narrative that favours it, however harmful that might be, to be spread by subservients in the media.
The problem has to be resolved by the political class and the electorate, with judicial intervention, media self-regulation, fact-checking and civil society playing a facilitative role. And before the apex court laments the lack of control over a YouTube, it will have to understand that the need to make a Sudarshan TV (of the UPSC jihad infamy) accountable for peddling rank communal content and furthering a divisive narrative is far greater.
This is not to say that YouTube channels, sometimes with millions of subscribers, or Twitter accounts, sometimes with millions of followers, are to be left without any check. But the rot must be stemmed where it originates.