“Misinformation is not an outlier on the internet – rather, it’s being weaponized repeatedly against open democracies like India to create chaos by organized vested interests,” wrote Rajeev Chandrasekhar, India’s junior minister for electronics and Information Technology (IT), in a newspaper column while justifying the recent controversial amendments involving misinformation and fact-checking. IT rules, he wrote, “are a step in denying misinformation space on the internet.”
Few would disagree on the need to have enhanced mechanisms to fight disinformation, especially in South Asian countries where the digital literacy rate is still low. Fake news spreading through social media platforms has led to numerous incidents of violence in India, including communal riots claiming lives, apart from leading to a general communalization of society.
However, what the Narendra Modi government has done with its April 6 notification is quite striking. It has made itself the sole authority to determine what is fact and what is disinformation.
This limits, if not eliminates, the scope for independent fact-checking on the government’s claims. On the basis of its determination of something as disinformation, the amended IT Rules empower the government to ask social media platforms hosting the content to take it down. They must oblige.
“It was felt by many platforms that since the government was a target of most misinformation operations, a fact-checking unit was needed to flag misinformation. Why is this fact-checking unit a government body? Only the government has access to government data and so, it is almost impossible for any non-governmental entity to effectively fact-check content about the government,” Chandrasekhar argued.
Chandrasekhar’s claim that the “government was a target of most misinformation operations” may not reflect the ground reality, as it is the Hindutva nationalists – India’s current ruling force – who have been most repeatedly accused of spreading disinformation. Senior leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), including lawmakers, have been caught spreading disinformation.
In March, when Chief Minister Adityanath of the BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh claimed that no farmer committed suicide in his state during the past six years of BJP rule, FactChecker.in, pointed out data showed 398 such cases.
Therefore, India’s Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Amendment Rules, 2023, which the electronics and IT ministry notified on April 6, has evoked the example of the controversial Digital Security Act (DSA) in neighboring Bangladesh, which has allegedly been used more to silence voices critical of the government than to check disinformation.
India’s leading journalistic institutions lambasted the government, pointing out that the rules make no mention of the scope for appeal and the modalities of hearing against the government fact-check unit’s decision.
The Editors Guild of India called the rules “draconian” and said that it “will have deeply adverse implications for press freedom in the country.”
“The Ministry has given itself the power to constitute a ‘fact-checking unit’, which will have sweeping powers to determine what is ‘fake or false or misleading,’ with respect to ‘any business of the Central Government’, and with instructions to ‘intermediaries’ (including social media intermediaries, Internet Service Providers, and other service providers), to not host such content. In effect, the government has given itself absolute power to determine what is fake or not, in respect of its own work, and order take-down,” reads the Guild’s statement.
“Such power is seen to be arbitrary, as it is exercised without hearing the parties, and thus a violation of all principles of natural justice and has the effect of the complainant acting as the Judge,” said the Indian Newspaper Society in a statement issued on the same day.
Later, stand-up comedian Kunal Kamra approached the Bombay high court against the amendment.
Quite understandably, journalists would not be the sole sufferers. “A new power of censorship was born with a gazette notification,” on April 6, Internet Freedom Foundation’s Apar Gupta wrote in an article headlined “Ministry of Truth,” a direct reference to George Orwell’s “1984,” a dystopian novel that depicted life under a totalitarian regime.
Referring to the proposed fact-check unit at the government’s Press Information Bureau, Gupta wrote, “This Orwellian department will scrutinize any online comments, news reports or opinions about government officials and ministries and then notify online intermediaries for its censorship.”
The draft rules were first made public in January for comments and it drew criticism right at that point, with all major journalists’ organizations asking for its rollback. At that time, journalist Tapasya Tofuss had elaborated a case study of how PIB fact-check happens at present and what could happen if the PIB’s fact-check unit becomes the sole authority to tell facts from disinformation.
The story she described goes as follows: After she exposed, in June 2022, the Union government’s move to make Aadhaar (Unique Identification numbers) compulsory for children under six to get nutritious food — in contravention to the supreme court’s directive — the “PIB Fact Check” unit called the story “fake,” without offering any evidence or describing how or why. There was just one simple announcement that the news is fake.
Besides making evidence available in the public domain, Tofuss also filed applications under the Right to Information Act with the women and child development ministry and the PIB, asking them to furnish all internal records and files showing how this particular fact-check was carried out. Her story was published in June, based on a notification issued in March. But the women and child welfare ministry wrote back, stating that Aadhaar was not mandatory, citing an August 1 notification, which was issued a month and a half after the publication of the report. The ministry also said that “no further” record regarding the PIB’s fact-check was available to them.
The PIB, on its turn, said that their fact-check was on the basis of a statement issued by the ministry on June 30 that said Aadhaar was not mandatory for mid-day meals. Even this statement was issued on the same day that the report was published.
Now, the report was that the government was secretly making Aadhaar mandatory but the PIB considered as fact what the ministry announced publicly.
Once the government starts implementing the provisions of the amended rules, such reports may no longer exist on social media platforms. The PIB’s fact-check finding is not obligatory on the media house but it is obligatory on the intermediaries, such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or Instagram, through which the media platforms reach most of their readership.
And Twitter owner Elon Mask has already indicated how his organization would deal with government orders when he recently said, “The rules in India for what can appear on social media are quite strict, and we can’t go beyond the laws of a country. If we have a choice of either our people go to prison, or we comply with the laws, we’ll comply with the laws.”