This article has been written by Mustafa Chitalwala., a student of Symbiosis Law School, Pune
Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, director at Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, thinks that “the problems of disinformation in a society like India might be more complex and more challenging than they are in the West”.
India is a country of 1.3 billion people. Where more than half the people of this country are connected to a social platform. People who used to send Good Morning messages are the ones who are now unknowingly forwarding and are vulnerable to fake news. Social Media, is a tool, which used appropriately could do miracles but used inappropriately could lead to threats or even attacks. India is a rising hub for fake news where edited videos, false advertisements and memes are used for social media propagated rumours. Indian fake news is frequently used to spread politically or communal propaganda. This is leading to millions of people getting manipulated by these fake online forwards. In 2018 more than two dozen people were killed due to a misinformed video, leading to mob violence. The video was for an anti-kidnapping commercial shot in Pakistan which was edited in such a way and forwarded manipulating young and older adults minds to believe in such news.
Nowadays, fake news is the weapon of choice in the pitched battles fought through intermediaries such as WhatsApp forwards or Facebook posts. With one of the largest intermediaries for spreading fake news is WhatsApp, with over 230 million users. According to Microsoft’s report, Indian internet users are more likely to have been subjected to fake news than any others. Although the Constitution of India guarantees its people a fundamental right to speech and expression (Article 19), it does not expressly provide for freedom of the press. On the World Press Freedom Index of 2020, India ranked 142nd on a list of 180 countries. However, the question still lies at what is fake news? Fake news can mean multiple things, a mistake, twisting, fabricating or intentional misleading of any news which creates apprehension or deceives the people.
FAKE NEWS DAMAGES – EXAMPLES
CORONAVIRUS – “We are not just fighting an epidemic; we are fighting an infodemic. Fake news spreads faster and more easily than this virus, and is just as dangerous.” – Dr. Ghebreyesus. One of the most recent examples of fake news being the novel coronavirus pandemic. Where multiple people were spreading news relating to India declaring a financial emergency or the government is going delegate the army to control the virus in a few states and other conspiracy theories. A number of people have already been arrested for spreading communal hatred and misinforming the people through social media forwards. On March 7th Prime Minister Narendra Modi appealed to the nation, not to believe in any rumours related to the pandemic and anticipate for official confirmation.
ELECTIONS – India the largest democracy was going through the 2019 general elections, which was fuelled with the readership of fake news. News enterprises such as VICE and AltNews have respectively written, “parties have weaponised the platforms” and “misinformation was weaponised” respectively. WhatsApp, India’s most popular messaging platform, has become a vehicle for misinformation and propaganda for the election. The election was being called “The WhatsApp’s Election”, these intermediaries play such a vital role to circulate fake news and used as a tool of propaganda (Cambridge Analytica Scandal).
OTHER EXAMPLES – EU DisinfoLab report that Indian influence networks manage more than 265 fake local news websites in more than 65 countries. Muslims surround the theories with a significant conspiracy. Arnab Goswami provoked a controversy by communalizing and spreading false news in the 2020 Palghar mob lynching case, in which multiple FIRs were filed against him. There has been an increase in the circulation of fake news since the current government came to power. With fake news about GPS tracking nanochips, Kashmir’s violence and the CAA bill. This false news has led to mob lynching, communal hatred, and political propaganda.
LAWS RELATING TO CURBING FAKE NEWS
Throughout India, there is no clear rule regarding false news. Open publishing of news media under Article 19 of the Constitution ensuring freedom of speech.
The Indian Penal Code, 1860
Section 505(1) of the Indian Penal Code mentions that anyone who creates, publishes, or even circulates any false information, report, or rumour to cause apprehension among the people or incite feelings of communal hatred will be imprisoned for between 3-5 years. However, this section does not enlighten or mention the element of intention, which insinuates that whom so spreads false information in good faith or no intention, will not be charged.
Under section 153 of the Indian Penal Code, anyone provoking the public maliciously or wilfully is to be jailed for a 1 year or a fine term for provocation leading to riots or any disturbance. Otherwise, a sentence of 6 months or fine both will be reduced. In Section 153(1)(a) of the Indian Penal Code, whoever intends to promote feelings of hate, animosity or disharmony between different groups of people, through language, whether spoken or written or expressed in an obvious way, is punished under this section.
Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code imposes a punishment of 4 years or a fine penalty, or both on anyone knowingly and maliciously attempting to offend a specific religion or religious beliefs, outraging religiosity of any class by the expression, or writing, or by visible representation.
Information Technology Act, 2000
Section 66 in The Information Technology Act, 2000: If any person, dishonestly or fraudulently, does any act referred to in section 43 (damage to a computer, computer system), he shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years or with fine which may extend to five lakh rupees or with both.
The Disaster Management Act, 2005
The enforcement of false warnings is addressed in section 54 of the Disaster Management Act. An individual who falsely warns or alarms against a disaster or the severity of that false disaster leading to panic, on conviction, shall be sentenced to one year in prison or to a fine. Interestingly, there is no mention of the element of intention here.
India is a country with a large population. Undoubtedly, there will be a considerable number of Indians using social media; however, since India has a large number of illiterate people, who are bound to be manipulated by false information. These false news, rumours and communal hatred have given rise to mob attacks and lynching in the country. The Government should take immediate action, and they have. On 2 April, the Press Information Bureau published “Guidelines for the Accreditation of Journalists Amended to Regulate Fake News.” However, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting protested against the guidelines and withdrew the release of the guidelines within 14 hours. Reminding you India is 142 out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index.
It is time for the government to take immediate and robust action to curb this fake news. The government should take the example of other countries, such as Singapore and Italy, to counter false news. Singapore has recently introduced anti-fake news laws, even though the laws are highly controversial, India should implement people-friendly laws. Italy, on the other hand, has ‘recognised false news’ in the school syllabus. India should also place serious emphasis on cyber-security, internet education, fake news education in academic curriculums. India should fight together as one against fake news.
 The Quint. 2020. India’S Disinformation War More Complex Than In West: Oxford Prof. [online]Available at: <https://www.thequint.com/news/india/media-coverage-disinformation-in-india-interview-rasmus-nielsen>
 RSF. 2020. 2020 World Press Freedom Index | RSF.
 (Section 505(1) in The Indian Penal Code, n.d.)
 In (Section 153 in The Indian Penal Code, n.d.)
 (Section 153A in The Indian Penal Code, n.d.)
 (Section 295A in The Indian Penal Code, n.d.)
 (Section 66 in The Information Technology Act, 2000, n.d.)
 (Section 54 in The Disaster Management Act, 2005, n.d.)