Social Media websites are essential platforms through which Fake News is spread around the world. Such fraudulent news has changed public opinions in the past, and have managed to disrupt democracy. This has propelled social media companies to crack down on the issue by regulating content on their respective platforms. Even then, Fake News has evolved its content to sound and look more similar to real fact-based news. The inefficiency of these measures has led the Indian Government to raise the question – is blocking these platforms the only hope to curb the spread of Fake News in the country?
On July 18, 2018, the Department of Telecom (DoT) send out a letter to several stakeholders, asking their opinion on the option of blocking popular apps, including Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram. The letter was sent to the Internet Service Providers Association of India (ISPAI), Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), and to several telecom operators including Airtel, Jio, Vodafone, and Idea. Blocking of such apps would fall under the Section 69A of IT Act – which talks about power to issue directions for blocking for public access to any information through any computer resource.
Social Media messaging platforms like WhatsApp has been instrumental in spreading mass misinformation – resulting in 39 cases of lynching in the past three months. While the government has asked WhatsApp to check “traceability” and attribution of messages, they have not shown commitment in addressing the demands. Instead, they have reverted back saying that attributing messages would undermine the private nature of the messenger itself and it’s much praised ‘end-to-end encryption’. Meanwhile, they have proposed building local teams to check the circulation of fake news in several regions in India.
According to the Government of India, these websites also being misused for illegal activities such as child pornography and terror. However, evidence of such claims is not available to the public.
Many experts, though, claim that the underlying reason for pushing such an agenda is to prevent Fake News from affecting the results of the upcoming 2019 general elections. Fake News was instrumental in affecting the results of the 2016 US election, in which several Russian and Ukrainian hackers posted defamatory information about then-candidate Hillary Clinton, and resulted in the sway of public opinion that saw Donald Trump become the president. The Election commission of India has conducted meetings with WhatsApp and Facebook teams to discuss ways to prevent misuse of the platform in India’s coming election cycle.
The COAI has replied back to the initial DoT query, stating that it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible to categorically block apps. Telecom companies, meanwhile, have made it clear that such an initiative won’t be taken by them without clear government directive.
In any case, blocking these apps would not prevent the spread of Fake News, as they can use any number of available platforms that will replace them in the country. In order to address this issue, people should be informed regarding news credibility and should be taught how to validate information shared on such websites. Moreover, blocking certain popular apps would not bode well with the youth of India, and might backfire in poll results for the ruling party.