Need for a robust policy framework to rein in fake news
The pandemic has forced the world to go digital and as information flows in the online channels of communication, we face a grave challenge - one of misinformation and disinformation. Will this infodemic chart a new course for the way online content is consumed? What impact will the current situation have on policymaking in the sector? These were some of the points discussed in an intriguing panel discussion organised by PR & Advocacy firm SPAG in association with Reputation Today. SPAG Dialogue: The Policy Series kickstarted a policy dialogue on July 24 by discussing the impact of COVID-19 on online content and policy. On the panel were Berges Y Malu of ShareChat, Govindraj Ethiraj of BOOM and IndiaSpend, Paroma Roy Chowdhury of SoftBank and Sanjay Khan Nagra of Khaitan & Co.
SPAG’s managing partner and co-founder Aman Gupta moderated the discussion and opened with the need for a “multi-stakeholder approach” in tackling the current situation. He said, “The infodemic has reached a level that it needs a coordinated response.” This set the ball rolling with Govindraj Ethiraj providing some interesting insights into the workings of the online space.
“The speed of information dissemination is higher in India as compared to the rest of the world. We also have a very big population. What does this do? It affects us in two ways. Mentally and physically. Physically it is in terms of rumour mongering which we have seen in the past leading to violence and even death,” elaborated Ethiraj who voiced his concerns about online content losing its trust factor. He added, “Over time your ability to say anything is going to be diminished because the overall trust in online content is falling because of rampant misinformation. We need a two-part approach. First, we have to fight hard. We are up against a machinery, not a few individuals. The fake news machinery shifts with amazing speed and alacrity. It capitalises on the most current topic and then jumps from one issue to the other before you know it. But the impact is massive. Second, we have to invest in education & also educate people on how to judge accuracy of information online.”
However, what are the solutions moving forward? Berges Y Malu believed the government has a huge role to play. “The government must come out with regulations so that people fear sharing fake news. They do it for fun, but it leads to real world harm. People have died due to this. We can't impose restrictions that actively curb free speech, so the only other way to move forward is through effective policy,” stated Berges. In recent times, the discussion around the use of artificial intelligence and technology to filter content has gained steam. The example of China’s content monitoring AI is often used. Berges felt a method like that is easier suggested than practically applied. He said, “Easy to say you can use AI & technology to fight this but it's a difficult path to tread. This could cause major censorship on content eventually.”
Credibility of news outlets was an issue raised by nearly all panelists during the discussion. “What is worse is that even newspapers or government releases aren't putting out completely accurate news. What is anyone supposed to do then,” explained Berges. In this regard, according to Paroma Roy Chowdhury having a credible data source is the most important. “Onus is on editors & news sources to be as credible & factual as possible. It is also important how we package our information. You have to make information easy to view and understand. We can’t bank on censorship to filter information because that is definitely a very slippery slope” she said.
However, from the perspective of regulating online content, Sanjay Khan Nagra felt that this issue was beyond law. He believed, “This isn't a topic that one can easily find solutions to. I think the debate is not about bringing a new law because this is also a societal problem about privacy and information dissemination.” He added that at the end of the day there needs to be a fear of spreading false information in people and media houses. “The change has to flow top-down. It is impossible to regulate individuals upfront. So, who do you go after? First, we have to ensure our media houses are fearful of not disseminating fake new.”
According to Ethiraj. there is an undeniable magnification of the problem due to technology. “I think the issue has to be addressed on the demand side as well as the supply side. Self-regulation is necessary too. Is there any self-regulation at the news media level? This is important and at the moment, there is none. However, it is also true that 90% of information dissemination happens outside of news media. It is a strange situation,” he said. Another solution often put out is the coming together of platforms to fight off this infodemic, but Berges was of the opinion that this isn’t a solution that will work. He elaborated, “Platforms coming together is not a great idea. Some platforms find monetising fake news better, while some actively fight it. So, I doubt unanimously we will see platforms coming together against fake news.”
To this end, Paroma concluded the session with her insights on creating a robust policy framework moving forward. “Within the policy ecosystem one thing that can be looked at is easing the processes of content flagging and removal. But when there is grave provocation what do you do? So, we need a neutral decision-making body that can intervene in that sense. We absolutely need a policy framework, not necessarily government, but some kind of a policy outline to monitor this infodemic,” she stated.