Fake news’ has become a global concern since the rise of unpleasant incidents that have challenged the users’ trust in the news, especially through social media. Lack of policy implementation or laws which could either curb fake news or hold the perpetrator accountable for their action have only made the situation complex and challenging. Responsible users have time and again raised the issue to review and amend the existing laws to meet the challenges of spreading of the fake news, but efforts by both policymakers and civil societies have not been enough to address this lacuna within the overpowering digital space.
Fake news has certain associated characteristics like short life span of fake news creator, relatively faster as well as higher ‘share’ and ‘clicks’ on social media, and therefore called as syndrome which weaves labyrinth of digital folklore of hoaxes, pranks, satires and parodies . Media is now a web of propaganda, and there are more views than news . The lack of a clear distinction, for internet users, between real and fake news is what further challenges source credibility . Though the term, ‘fake news,’ had been in usage since a century at least, it attained a renewed interest among media scholars and journalists in recent times, mainly owing to the sudden rise of hoaxes propagated via the internet.
Information dissemination via the internet, according to scholarly works, could create two major impacts in the society; which are “Universal access to information” and “Selective exposure”.
What is Fake News?
A few years ago, ‘fake news’ was a rarely used term. Today, it has become one of the greatest threats to the existing system of democracy and a hot topic for the debaters. Shashank Atreya, a practicing lawyer, claims that fake news can be defined as ‘untrue and unverified news.’ ‘Untrue’ refers to false facts, whereas ‘unverified’ refers to where the facts might be true, but the numbers and characters are false .
Fake news is fabricated information that mimics news media content in form but not in organizational process or intent. (Lazer et al.)
Fake-news outlets, in turn, lack the news media’s editorial norms and processes for ensuring the accuracy and credibility of the information.Fake news overlaps with other information disorders, such as misinformation (false or misleading information) and disinformation (false information that is purposely spread to deceive people). Though there is no one definition for fake news, what makes it a concern is that it allows subjective interpretations of the concept, thus making it difficult to study or allow any policy interventions.
Fake news comprises of stories, news, and hoaxes created to misinform deliberately or deceive readers or to push a political agenda.
In contemporary times, various media propagate fake news. A newspaper in print media, television in broadcast and internet in digital form propagate fake news. However, due to the changing role of social media in the past few years, it has become a forerunner in the distribution of fake news. Since social media has increasingly gained acceptance among audiences, it plays a huge role in forming public opinions during elections.
The trigger point that catapulted fake news on social media was during the last US Presidential election. During this election, Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm, partnered with a researcher from Cambridge University and illegally used the data of 87 million Facebook profiles to work on Trump campaign. The purpose of collecting personal data of millions of users was to influence ‘swing voters’ during the election campaign. Fake news was circulated using Facebook as a platform, for which the social media giant received uncomplimentary publicity. However, whether this fake news affected the voting patterns to alter the election outcome is a question mark.
Economists Allcott and Gentzkow , who studied the possible impact of fake news on voting patterns during the 2016 US Presidential election, concluded that fake news on social media was not as influential as it is believed to be. They further suggested that with television remaining the dominant source of political news and information, for fake news to have changed the outcome of the election, a single fake article would need to have had the same persuasive effect as 36 television campaign ads.
Social Media as a Public Sphere
The model, in which the social media functions, is highly responsible for how the information on social media affects its audience. Over the years, social media has emerged as a platform where anyone from any place can post absolutely anything at any given point in time. It primarily works on the number of clicks which works as a catalyst in spreading personalized ads which can manipulate and shape public discourse. This model allows a platform to launder one’s propaganda in a very subtle way which the audience hardly realize. The leverage over the audience has enabled false information to spread much more rapidly than accurate information. Research conducted by using a data set of one decade at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), showed how false news and information sell faster than the true one on Twitter. It also showed how rumors tweeted on the social media platform spread rapidly and are retweeted at a faster rate when compared to the true news.
Previously, the media worked as a link between information providers and audiences. However, this has changed with the advent of social media where information is not only generated but also propagated. Thus, social media is often accused of shaping public debate and unfairly engineering people’s behavior and undermining the democratic process instead of nurturing a healthy public sphere.
Social Media acts as a facilitator of democracy by providing the public with equal access to information and equal opportunities to participate. The public sphere is the nexus between public life and civil society. It is that space of the society where access is guaranteed to all the citizens to engage and discuss the matters of general interest to form a public opinion. Evolution of social media and its increasing role as a platform for its users to express their opinions has guaranteed freedom in an unrestricted way.
Social media collects information and opinions from all its audiences irrespective of the class they belong to – bourgeois or proletariat – and thus provides a neutral space for all those who are a part of the civil society to discuss any issue of common interest. Since it fulfills the basic pre-requisites of providing space, albeit digitally, for free speech of participants, it becomes a public sphere virtually.
However, how civil society uses social media creates a dilemma if social media is an effective public sphere or merely acts as a chaotic echo chamber for the public reason being, social media has fewer central nodes, gatekeepers or agenda setters than the traditional media. This makes social media susceptible to unverified and misleading content viz. fake news.
Social media platforms, in contrast to the traditional and conventional media outlets, enjoy an unchecked space. Since social media platforms provide a free platform for expression of speech and opinions by its users, therefore, no laws can be practically implemented to restrict the freedom of the users. This makes it almost impossible to eradicate fake news from social media as the flow of information, or the content cannot be entirely restricted.
Although, this does not rule out the possibility to regulate the medium/platform.
There have been various regulating methods implemented by different nations, to combat the propagation of fake news. These regulatory mechanisms have been initiated involving multiple stakeholders, which include self-regulation by social media platforms, legal injunction to curb fake news, implementation of the law, and constitutional remedies and independent regulatory bodies.Various social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp have been implementing self-regulatory mechanisms over the last couple of years in response to increasing fake news propagation.
The social media giant, Facebook, received much criticism for its role in the propagation of fake news during the US 2016 Presidential Election. The Head of Cybersecurity Policy of Facebook, Nathaniel Gleicher, said in its blog post on November 2018 that it had identified around 30 Facebook accounts and 85 Instagram accounts that may be engaged in coordinated inauthentic behavior and blocked them on US mid-term Election Day because of their suspicious links to Internet Research Agency . Similarly, in India, ahead of the 2018 Assembly election in Rajasthan, Facebook removed thousands of pages, groups, and accounts involved in coordinated inauthentic behavior in a bid to curb fake news through improved artificial intelligence.
Meanwhile, Twitter, which is one of the major influencing social media in the US, identified more than 4,600 accounts and 10 million tweets affiliated with the Internet Research Agency, that played a role in meddling in the US elections, including the US 2016 Presidential elections . In India, WhatsApp is more dominant than Twitter, as a social media platform, has played the role of primary vehicle in the circulation of fake news. It has taken a few steps in the regulation of spreading of fake news under pressure from the Indian government.
Recently, it rolled out the five chat limit for each forward message to limit the spread of messages by way of group messages. This step was implemented to act as a speed breaker to effectively handle the menace of rumors and fake news. The five chat limit restricts a person from forwarding a particular message to only five members at once .
One has to understand that regulatory mechanisms restrict and penalize the perpetrators. Technical measures can only contain the propagation of fake news.
Fake news is not just a technical issue.
Fake News is more of a social problem since the root problem is not technology but the way we use it. Even when WhatsApp rolled out five chat limit, there were loopholes in the process. The restriction only limited forwarding of a message at one time; it could still be circulated by merely editing it or forwarding it to five other people multiple times. One needs to look at the root cause of this problem to be able to find a sustainable solution.
Policy Intervention by Various Nations
Apart from self-regulatory measures, government intervention is also one of the most common methods implemented by nations around the world to combat fake news. Here, the government is expected to intervene by bringing in a law to restrict the usage or penalize the perpetrators if the information they share on social media platforms does not conform to certain standards. The following segment discusses policy measures taken by some of the countries to regulate fake news and enable vibrancy of the virtual public sphere.
In 2017, lawmakers and regulators in Italy felt a need to introduce new rules for fake news. Since spreading of fake news was highly debated concern during their constitutional referendum campaign, a legislative proposal was submitted in the Senate of the Republic.
This proposed law criminalized sharing and posting of ‘false, exaggerated or biased’ information and imposed fines of up to 5000 Euros. It proposed imprisonment in cases of fake news as grave as inciting violence or crime and obligated the Internet Service Providers (ISP) with a responsibility to monitor their role in regulating the content and in the removal of such news that is not reliable and true. Part of the law was faced resistance since it used vague terms like ‘false or exaggerated or biased’ news, which can take a wide range of definitions. Also, the law partly challenged the freedom of expression under their Constitution.
Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), ‘Freedom of Expression’ discusses the right to freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority. Though the Article gives public a right to express, it also qualifies the right by stating that this freedom of expression can only be exercised subject to certain such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law. Such qualifications shall be based keeping in mind national security, territorial integrity, public safety, disorder or crime, health or morals, reputation or rights of others, the disclosure of information received in confidence, maintenance of authority and impartiality of the judiciary.
In the run-up to 2018 Malaysian general elections, the former Prime Minister of Malaysia, Najib Razak, introduced Anti-Fake News Act 2018, after the Billon anti-fake news received the Malaysian King’s assent. Under this law, publishers of the content were required to immediately remove the published content if it was suspected to contain fake news (Malaysia’s anti-fake news legislation becomes law, is now enforceable, 2018). This Bill would give rise to a conflict in the constitutional rights of people in a democratic nation.
Such a law which regulates the people from voicing their opinions is a regressive one. This law introduced by former Prime Minister was also alleged to curtail the free form of political speech. However, the current government in August 2018 attempted to repeal the law quoting that the existing laws relating to communication and media are “sufficient” to tackle fake news in the country . Although, the Bill to repeal the existing Anti Fake News 2018 Bill was passed in the lower house in August, it was later rejected by the Senator . It is interesting to note that such laws which regulate what the public can opine and speak sets a wrong precedent in a democratic space where people enjoy the right to free speech.
In Germany, the government brought in a law, titled “Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz” (Network Enforcement Act)(NetzDG), which came into effect on January 1, 2018. This law mandates online platforms to remove “obviously illegal” posts within 24 hours or risk fines of up to €50 million (Funke, 2018). Though this law was implemented by the German government to reduce the spread of misinformation, it received much flak. Primarily because when regulation of content happens on social media platforms, it often leads to depreciation of the democracy in place. Such law which blindly restricts the speech of its people, based on specific key-word parameters, can be used as a tool by the government to suppress power, voice and disturb the democratic space in the public sphere. If unchecked, such a move can turn into systematic state-based surveillance and censorship, which could adversely undermine democracy in the nation .
After Italy introduced a law criminalizing the sharing and posting of ‘false, exaggerated or biased’ information along with Germany passing legislation to fight back fake news, France also decided to take pro-active steps to deal with the issue of fake news.
French Parliament amended its Constitution in November 2018, at the National Assembly, after being opposed by the Senate twice earlier and passed a law to fight the handling of information. It aimed to check the rapid dissemination of fake news through social networks and foreign media outlets. This law gave particular attention to election campaigns and attempted to thwart any danger posed by available tools during elections. The law stipulated measures like transparency obligations for digital platforms and the creation of legal injunction for election campaign periods.
In compliance with the former measure, digital platforms will now have to publish the name of the author and the amount paid for any of their sponsored content. Under the latter, it would enable an interim judge to swiftly halt the circulation of “fake news1” by way of legal injunction. Also, the official law protects the freedom of journalistic work by stating that the text is aimed at deliberate attempts to manipulate information. Critics argue that the controversial law could jeopardize democracy and act as censorship. Also, the Russian media heavily criticized this law, saying it could be used to target Russian media outlets.
News Literacy is the Solution
Media or News literacy has been one of the most promising solutions recommended by many experts around the world. In a seminar held by Education Writers Association in New Orleans (2018), speakers were of a consensus that schools need to teach their students how to separate false news from the credible ones since news literacy could act as a vaccine against fake news . According to a survey conducted among children of age 10 to 18 years by the Common Sense Media in 2017, 44% of the surveyed children felt that they could differentiate fake stories from the real ones. Although, around 31% of kids who shared a news story on social media, later found out that the shared story was wrong or inaccurate. The initiative also needs to be backed by the ability to understand the relationship between news and ownership patterns to evaluate the information based on its source credibility.