Battling fake news online won't be easy for ECI PDF Print E-mail
Saturday, 30 March 2019 00:00
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The upcoming general election could well be dubbed India’s first WhatsApp election—87,000 groups, as per media reports, are targeting over 20 crore voters in the country with forwards of genuine political news, fabricated and twisted news, propaganda, hate speech, videos of violence that are misattributed to a region or community, etc. The Election Commission of India (ECI) working with social media and insta-messaging platforms to put curbs on use of these to influence voting decisions, thus, is a welcome move. The poll regulator has made it mandatory for candidates to furnish details of their social media accounts, and their activity on such platforms is to be monitored.

Model code of conduct rules will apply to social media as well, and political advertisements on social media will need pre-certification. The ECI is also believed to have set a deadline for social media companies for removing content after violation is flagged—both the companies and the ECI (based on the Sinha Committee recommendations) have accepted three-hours-post-flagging as the deadline. Internet-enabled campaigning via social media/insta-messaging also must end 48 hours before election. However, digital media is a different beast altogether, and, even on paper, the ECI’s proactive monitoring—despite being right-spirited—hardly seems adequate.

Controlling the flow of misinformation and bigotry online seems a Sisyphean task. Take, for instance, the New Zealand terrorist attack, in which the white supremacist attacker live-streamed his attack on a mosque that left over 50 dead, via Facebook. At least 200 users were watching, and none reported it immediately—it was only half-an-hour into the attack that viewers used Facebook’s reporting tools. In the first 24 hours of the attack, users had uploaded the video 1.5 million times and Facebook’s automatic detection blocked 1.2 million. A day after the attack, therefore, 300,000 copies were circulating unchecked, reaching millions worldwide, some of whom would have made new copies; indeed, Turkish president Recep Erdogan used the video in a political speech to play on communal passions. This problem afflicts all internet-enabled media, and whatever companies do post facto may not ever be enough to dam in misinformation and bigotry, often spread to achieve narrow political ends. YouTube and other such platforms continue to battle re-uploads. On Reddit, links to the video were shared, and then deleted by the company, only for users to post links to alternative “mirror” sites. Users devise myriad ways—almost on a daily basis—to beat detection by algorithms. So, the three-hour removal deadline is like trying to stopper a tsunami.

Even if the ECI were to ban parties and candidates from sharing polarising content, given how disaggregated these chains of sharing and forwarding are—the 87,000 WhatsApp groups could be just the tip of the iceberg—there is almost no way to control dissemination in an absolute manner. Also, some of ECI’s provisions spell out how these can be sidestepped. For instance, given the Lok Sabha election will be conducted in seven phases, the bar on social media/insta-messaging campaigning is rendered void simply by ensuring campaign messages originate in a different geography from where the bar applies, and from a source that can’t be tied to a contesting party or candidate. What can the ECI do, then? The poll regulator could recommend exemplary action for violations by parties/candidates. It can also perhaps consider mandatory disclosure by parties of the particulars of their social media spending and key figures in the implementation of the social media/IT strategy—though the latter could run afoul of privacy rights. Social media firms need to commit to more serious efforts; a Facebook, which admits that “it’s not feasible given our (Facebook’s) scale” to become “arbiters of truth”, must thus remedy the disconnect between partnering “third-party fact-checking organizations” to control spread of fake news and enlisting three Indian “fact-checkers” that have themselves shared misinformation (goo.gl/TbvLsF).



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