The Guardian view on Facebook and fake news in India: rampant intolerance | Editorial

News about fake news in India is just not very pretty. Reports of campaign adverts against prime minister Narendra Modi, as well as encouragement of violence against Hindus, have stoked controversy in the socially…

News about fake news in India is just not very pretty. Reports of campaign adverts against prime minister Narendra Modi, as well as encouragement of violence against Hindus, have stoked controversy in the socially conservative country. Social media companies have been roundly criticised for not stepping in to stop the spread of fake news in India. Among the myriad parties running for office in the biggest elections in a generation – also include the ruling BJP and the main opposition Congress party – social media is seen as one of the biggest threats.

A digital divide – India 2017 – covers the spread of access to technology and data – an issue of vital importance in India, the world’s most populous democracy. A separate study has found that although internet users account for the majority of internet users worldwide, Facebook has one of the lowest penetration rates among large countries, at just 27% – worse than only Thailand and Malaysia.

During the past year, Facebook has been accused of participating in Indian disinformation campaigns on a range of issues ranging from religious extremism to human rights abuses. Much of the hateful content is spread through comments on its “likes” page, many of which were created by Facebook itself.

While the nature of campaigns may differ on different social media platforms, the same issues are driving misinformation. Misinformation spreads on several platforms in the internet space. Fake news on the disputed issue of Azadi – or freedom – during the 2017 Kashmir dispute was shared on WhatsApp. Newspapers like the Times of India reported fake posts on a rape and murder case that turned out to be hoax.

Research has shown that Facebook has clearly been blamed for false material due to its proliferation, making it difficult for it to combat misinformation in India. The company has tried to address this, relying on content curation in India as well as suspending users found to be engaging in spreading misinformation.

Facebook has also worked with local political and civil society groups to create guidelines on how to report and take down fake news in a clear and consistent manner. The Indian government has also announced a new law that, if passed, will require social media companies to monitor and control disinformation across India.

There is not just one content gatekeeper to look out for – misleading news stories can spread virally on social media platforms due to the way content is spread and propagated. Online systems should have the tools to identify and trace content. Otherwise, we run the risk of a three-tier newsfeed: one for credible news, one for fake news, and one for no news at all.

The issue of fake news highlights the need for better and stronger rules and enforcement of digital regulations in India. The internet in India is made up of nearly 900 million people, with mobile internet usage growing at a fast pace. However, awareness and awareness levels about cyber safety and internet use remain low, which makes it difficult to catch misinformation online.

Some countries have enforced laws in order to stem the flow of misinformation. Countries like Australia, Germany and Spain have laws that criminalise fake news and hate speech. Brazil has created the first world law that criminalises the possession of fake news; UK now has to criminalise the spread of fake news by law. In India, social media is not regulated in the same way as publications and television. India’s national media regulator, the Press Council of India, still operates on a skeleton staff.

In India, we have the possibility of creating a firewall with both civic and social media companies aligned with government and overseeing the online ecosystem. This could become the most effective and powerful mechanism to fight misinformation and campaign hate speech.

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