Saturday, May 18, 2024

The country mustn’t get entangled in a web of fake news

In late 2020, the hashtag #NoMeat_NoCoronaVirus was trending on Twitter. Users were ‘appealing’ to others to quit meat consumption to safeguard everyone from covid-19. Misinformation had jumped in to fill an information vacuum. India’s poultry industry had fallen prey to fake news before, but what was new was a potent combination of low media literacy and social-media propagation.

Falsehoods about possible modes of covid contagion went with wild online speculation about the implications of a scary virus with zoonotic origins. Some of the messages on WhatsApp were peppered with images of chicken that looked ailing or ravaged to serve as ‘evidence’ of those false claims. Although these had no scientific basis, they fed anxiety among people and convinced many to—if not permanently, at least temporarily—stop consuming chicken. This hit the poultry sector hard. A research note published by the Division of Avian Physiology and Reproduction at the ICAR-Central Avian Research Institute pegged the industry’s losses at over $3 billion. According to a letter written by the All India Poultry Breeders Association (AIPBA) to the government, Indian poultry farmers faced an average loss of about 50 per kg as a result of rumours that were spread. Our own research with the Institute of Economic Growth looked at the socio-economic ramifications of misinformation on the Indian poultry industry. Conversations with stakeholders operating at different levels of the value chain revealed multiple forms of impact sustained by them, including social and psychological distress beyond an economic squeeze.

Farmers, who constitute the primary level of the poultry value chain, could not sell their chicken for a long period of time during the pandemic. Since they still had to feed their unsold stock, they were the worst hit. As procurement dropped sharply (to negligible or zero levels at one point), they were left with culling as their only option. This led to both short- and long-term financial adversities for farmers, some of whom had a very hard time recovering from the severity of the setback.

This case of the poultry sector offers us a peek into how fake news operates. It rarely works in isolation. A message that might look harmless holds the potential to impact many livelihoods, and, in this case, a whole sector.

Research shows that misleading or manipulative information relies on psychological mechanisms. In times of anxiety, for example, a defence mechanism could kick in that helps the mind deny the seriousness of a threat. This was demonstrated in the ‘n’ number of ‘home remedies’ for covid that found their way into people’s social media feeds.

India has an estimated 850 million active internet users, a count boosted by the ‘new normal’ of online life that we all adapted to during the pandemic. However, this growth has seen a parallel boom of misinformation. National Crime Records Bureau data shows a spike in fake news cases under Section 505 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) across the country in 2020.

India has had no specific legislation to regulate fake news. We rely on insufficient provisions such as the Information Technology Act and IPC to regulate what operates as an ecosystem. If India is to stop the damage that can be inflicted, we need to do more.

The upcoming Digital India bill is expected to feature measures against fake news. In framing rules, we need to understand the gravity of the problem and make sure that the country transitions from lack of regulation to an appropriate framework of control, instead of leaping into over-regulation that curtails legitimate freedom of speech and expression. In a recent presentation made on this bill by Rajeev Chandrasekhar, minister of state for information technology, he explained how it aspires to be a catalyst for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision of Digital India. The presentation mentioned how fake news was being “weaponized” under the aegis of freedom of speech. Now we must hope that the anticipated law itself does not end up becoming a weapon against free expression.

It is crucial for the bill to appropriately define the term ‘fake news’, because the existence of significant loopholes in the very definition of a violation increases the scope for false or faulty interpretations and misuse of a law. Further, extensive stakeholder consultations need to be held to ensure that the voices of all stakeholders including citizens, fact-checking organizations and others find their way into the provisions of any regulation.

According to a query-response provided by the government in the Lok Sabha this February, its fact-checking agency that operates under the Press Information Bureau busted 1,160 rumours since its inception in November 2019. Other organizations appear to have kept a closer watch. Newschecker.in, for example, reported having identified 2,824 instances of misinformation across nine languages in 2021 alone. Since a vast number of cases go unreported, or are considered too trivial to call out, we can assume that the actual prevalence of the problem is significantly worse. Artificial intelligence tools that create photo-realistic images have added to the menace. For the country to address it, we may need not only many more fact-checking units, but also better campaigns aimed at generating media literacy among users of social media. Source confirmation is still a practice only discerning users are aware of.

It is incumbent upon all users, however, to identify fake news and think hard before we share anything over the internet.

Preeksha Malhotra & Haseeba Sayyed are, respectively, a researcher and journalist working on issues of policy and regulation; and a political consultant.

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