• Vijayant Goel

Disinformation: The Plague For Democracy

Diyanshu Dubey, Nyayshastram

Introduction

Disinformation is the common term that has emerged as a serious concern and has metastasized to different democracies. In a literal sense, the disinformation means ‘Fake news’ or the false information that is deliberately spread to influence the public opinion and too reticent the truth. The fake news spreaders use several media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Whatsapp and sometimes even the news channels to spread their misleading, fake and propagandized information to the endless audience. The accentuate question emerges here is why only the democracies are concerned with fake news? The answer to this question is quite inferable through the system of administration in the democracies. In democracies, the people have their fundamental rights which include the right to speech and the state is bound to ensure that its population is not deprived of the fundamental right. Some of the people generally misuse this fundamental right by spreading misleading and propagandist information.

In India, the past two decades have been the period in which the significant technological and internet advancements took place, and this is the period when the cases of fake news got the august boost and emerged as the severe threat for the national integrity and peace. The nation witnessed the impact of fake news even a few months ago, related to the protests of CAA. The disinformation blinded the nation, and the vast crowds joined the CAA protest. There were several incidents, though humorous, where a considerable chunk of people protesting was not even aware of what is CAA and what it has to do. A shocking data shows that approximately 96% of the protesters were not even aware of the full form of the CAA.[1]

This was a brief overview of the basic concept of fake news and how it works. This article would be further discussing the government policies, the legal aspect of disinformation and the brief overview of information warfare about which the majority of the population needs to be enlightened.

The Government Policies and Legal Aspect

The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, under the Government of India, has a critical role, as far as the eradication of disinformation is concerned. The ministry has come up with some policies and steps to stem the issue of fake news:-

  • In 2018, the ministry came up with the notification and alluded that the journalist found guilty of broadcasting fake news will lose its accreditation for the limited period or permanently, depending on the gravity of the violation. The term accreditation has been defined in Central Newsmedia Accreditation Guidelines, 1999, which means recognition of media by the Government of India as an authentic source. Therefore, it was suggested to the citizens always to view the news channels that have been accredited by the Government of India[2].

However, the above notification got revoked within 15 hrs following the protest from the side of different media groups, accusing the Government of being authoritarian.

  • In 2019, the Government’s nodal agency PIB (Press Information Bureau) came up with the initiative to tackle the fake news on social media. The PIB elucidated that the person who finds any dubious material on Whatsapp, Facebook, Twitter or any other social media platform may send the link or the screenshot of the same to the ibfactcheck@gmail.com and PIB will check the authenticity of the material[3]. This was the excellent initiative by the PIB. However, the primary question that arises here is whether they have succeeded in spreading enough awareness among the public at large about this initiative? The answer is ‘no’. People do not have enough awareness and are not even able to classify the information which is doubtful and which is not. Thereby, the success ratio of this initiative gets cut to half.

The rumours and propagandist information spread during the recent CAA protest, and COVID19 lockdown actually exposed the government’s policies toward controlling the fake news or disinformation. Therefore, it is an urgent call for the government to introspect in its policy framing and come up with the concrete policies with regard to print and digital media.

The Current Legislations

In India, there is no definite statute to deal with this issue; however, there are a few provisions of statutes that deal with the flow of information and its publication.

  1. Indian Penal Code 1860: -

There is no provision specifically to curb fake news; however, there is some provision that criminalizes certain offences constituting of offensive contents.

  • Section 124A deals with sedition, and it specifies that whoever by words, spoken or written, or by visual representation attempts or commits to spreading the hatred toward the Government of India shall be punished with imprisonment or fine[4].

  • Section 153A specifies that promoting enmity between different religion, caste and class of people shall be the punishable offence[5].

  • Section 295A states that it is a punishable offence to spread the information either verbally or non-verbally that can outrage the religious faith of someone[6].

  • Section 504 punishes someone who intentionally provokes the breach of peace[7].


2. The Information Technology Act, 2000: -


This Act was drafted with the intention to regulate the affairs of the internet. The Act deals with internet commerce and certain sorts of cybercrime but, what about fake news? The Act had Section 66A that used to prohibit the “dissemination of information by means of a computer resource or a communication device intended to cause annoyance, inconvenience or insult” but, the provision was struck down by the SC and held it to be unconstitutional on the ground that the provision did not fall in the reasonable restriction of speech[8]. This was the only provision that could have been applied to the instances of fake news and misinformation.


3. The Internet Shutdown: -

The internet shutdown is a restrictive step that is generally taken by the government nowadays. The internet shutdown as the name suggests is nothing but, to shut down the internet to prevent the flow of information that is offensive. According to Internet Shutdown Tracker, India has been found as the leading country in the world to have the most internet shutdowns in the last one year, a total of 95 instances of internet shutdowns took place within the country[9]. This data is not a matter of pride; instead, it is a concern because this shows that the country is facing the most imminent threats of disinformation. There are a few acts that promote the idea of Internet shutdown.


· The Code of Criminal Procedure: - Section 144 of the code specifies that the state government with the written statement can enforce the curfew. The curfew may be on the movement of the people or the flow information through the internet or the gathering of people at one place[10].


· The Telegraph Act: - Section 5(2) of this Act authorizes the government to restrict the transmission of telegraphic information through the internet and may disrupt the internet service to attain this objective[11].


· Public Emergency or Public Safety rules: - These rules were promulgated under the Telegraph Act, 1885, to regulate the transmission of information through the internet in case of public emergency.

Although there are some provisions regarding disinformation, it still seems that there is a need to have separate legislation as the present provisions are not enough to curb this issue. The recent pieces of evidence of crisis regarding CAA protest turning into riots and failure of COVID19 lockdown reflected the need of some concrete policies and legal development in the country as the present framework has severally exposed and collapsed.

The issue of Right to Speech and Expression

The Right to Speech and Expression is the fundamental right which is enshrined under Article 19(1) (a) of the Indian Constitution. The right guarantees all the citizens to have freedom of speech and expression.” The freedom of speech and expression has been considered as something which shall not be violated within the meaning of basic structure, and the citizen shall not be deprived of this right. Now, the question is whether the restriction in the flow of disinformation will amount to the violation of this provision? The answer to this question can be found in article 19(2) that the state can impose reasonable restrictions on the freedom of speech and expression. The grounds for reasonable restriction are the security of the state, friendly relation with the foreign state, public order, decency or morality, or concerning contempt of court and defamation or incitement to an offence. Therefore, the flow of disinformation, can in no way be considered as the speech in consonance with any of the ground, thereon any restriction on the flow of fake news or disinformation shall not amount to the violation of this provision because ultimately that will be in the interest of sovereignty, integrity and the public order of the country.

Conclusion- Information Warfare

The past few decades saw drastic advancements in artificial intelligence and internet advancements which had many positive impacts. Nevertheless, there are some negative impacts as well, and information warfare is one of those negative impacts[12]. The information warfare as the name suggests is a “non-contact warfare”, which does not require the missiles, the artilleries, the tanks or light machine guns. Instead, it just needs an internet connection, the laptop and the man to sit behind the laptop or PC. The information technology is the prerequisite for information warfare. Thereby, it involves the transmission of manipulated information through the internet to influence the decision making of the public at large and to make decisions in the interest of the one who is conducting information warfare.

2016 US Presidential Election

The spread of disinformation is one aspect of information warfare. One of the famous instances of information warfare was the Russian influence in the 2016 US presidential elections. In 2017, a report was published by secret agencies of US including FBI and CAA, which stated that the Russian government conducted sophisticated campaigns via social media and many other platforms with dual aims.

The first aim was to damage the election campaigns of Hillary Clinton and second was to improve the candidacy of Donald Trump by spreading propagandized information. The question is why the Russian Government muddled with the US election and improved Trump’s candidacy. The answer to this question has not been explicit, and the views of the people are distributed. Some say Trump had a private meeting with the niece of Vladimir Putin and the agreement took place between them. The agreement between them specified that Russia would support Trump in his campaign, and in return, Trump will be lenient toward Russians if elected. In contrast, some people had different views altogether who say that Hillary Clinton was pretty much anti-Russia and the Russian government was of the view that if Hillary wins the election, she may emerge as a severe threat toward the Russian Federation. So, these are just the theories which have not been proved to date but, Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election has been proved.

The Delhi Riots

The Delhi riots during the anti CAA protests were also the result of Information warfare. The study found that around 5000 social media handles of Pakistan were the part of spreading the disinformation and propagandized information which resulted in distrust among the population and ended up emerging as the riot[13].

Epilogue

Therefore, information warfare is emerging as the neo-warfare method, and this requires just the flow of manipulated information. Now, it is an obligation on the government and legislature to come up with concrete laws and policies to restrict this flow because the impact of information warfare cannot be seen instantly instead it is a long-run process and results in more profound negative impact in the sovereignty, democracy and integrity of the nation.

[1]PTI, Supreme Court asks centre to consider publishing info about CAA to curb circulation of fake news, The Hindu, available at https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/supreme-court-asks-centre-to-consider-publicising-info-about-caa-to-curb-circulation-of-fake-news/article30339988.ece, last seen on 18/12.2019.

[2]ET, I&B Ministry reconstitutes panels for PIB accreditation, The New Indian Express, available at https://indianexpress.com/article/india/ib-ministry-reconstitutes-panels-for-pib-accreditation-smriti-irani-5106421/#:~:text=Advertisement-,The%20eight%2Dmember%20committee%20is%20headed%20by%20the%20Prinicpal%20Director,of%20the%20News%20Broadcasters%20Association., last seen on 22/03/2018. [3] ET, PIB establishes checking unit to combat fake news against government on social media, Economics Times, available at https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/tech/internet/pib-establishes-checking-unit-to-combat-fake-news-against-government-on-social-media/articleshow/72279066.cms?from=mdr, last seen on 28/11/2019. [4] S. 124A, Indian Penal Code, 1860. [5] S. 153A, Indian Penal Code, 1860. [6] S. 295A, Indian Penal Code, 1860. [7] S. 504, Indian Penal Code, 1860. [8] Shreya Singhal vs Union of India, (2013) 12 SCC 73. [9] Shadab Nazmi, BBC, available at https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-50819905, last seen on 19/12/2019. [10] S. 144, Code of Criminal Procedure 1973. [11] S. 5(2), The Telegraph Act, 1885. [12] Information warfare, Federation of American Scientists, available at https://fas.org/irp/eprint/snyder/infowarfare.htm. [13] Karan Choudhary and Neha Alawadhi, CAA protests, available at https://www.business-standard.com/article/companies/caa-protests-15-000-social-media-mediators-fight-to-root-out-fake-news-119121601331_1.html, last seen on 17/12/2019.

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