So Smriti Irani wants to regulate online news?

BY PADMAJA SHAW| IN Law and Policy | 22/03/2018
First, though, she needs to curb trolling and the spread of poison on social media, including by BJP supporters.
PADMAJA SHAW explains

 Minister Smriti Irani at the India Rising summit.

 

On March 19, 2018, reports began to appear about the central government’s desire to put in place a regulatory framework for social media. The focus of such regulation appears to be online news and broadcast content. The Minister of Information and Broadcasting has been  paraphrased as saying “that a line of ethics and code of conduct has to be put in place which is incumbent upon the agencies to abide by, to ensure that the customers do not get affected by the vested views in news, broadcasting and advertorial content.”

It is undeniable that more and more number of people are moving into online space for their news and entertainment. The unfettered freedom that the online space affords for speech has become precious for those seeking alternative sources of information, information that is not controlled by either the state or the market.

"The state has turned its attention to this part of the news landscape as it is almost the last bastion left that speaks truth to power"

 

So far online news portals have been beyond the reach of the usual modes of control such as state patronage through advertisements, threats from investigative agencies on parent companies that own media houses, withdrawal of corporate ads by big corporations, and so on, that the state and the corporate entities like to use. Their funding pattern is different, the people are committed to the profession of journalism and not enamoured of being close to power for reflected glory and its fringe benefits.

But as can be expected, the state has turned its attention to this part of the news landscape as it is almost the last bastion left that speaks truth to power. This code of conduct is unlikely to be devised or wielded in the public interest. 

Here is why.

The question in response to which the Minister for Information and Broadcasting Smriti Irani mentioned the need for regulation for online news pertained to trolls on social media.This was at the India Rising summit organised by CNN News 18.

She spoke of social media and online news in the same breath: “I am hopeful that such a similar body [a self regulatory body] will also emerge for the social media, at least the news, opinion and entertainment content.”  She then went on to dwell on the need to devise a way for online news to separate news from views. All this in response to a question on regulating social media.

If the minister thinks social media encompasses news, then at the very least the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting should have more conceptual clarity when it is setting out to attempt regulation of online media. Online news sites, as opposed to partisan sites, do not come under the rubric of social media. They certainly do not derive hugely from it. 

As for the latter category, several books such as “I am a troll” and “India Social” have been written about the gross misuse of social media to mislead, browbeat and terrorise online users of social networks like Twitter and Facebook. There are factories of fake news that churn out misinformation, communal propaganda, doctored videos and images to spread rumours. Much of it is either coming out of the official IT cell of the ruling BJP or through its committed supporters or paid agents who have made it their business to spread deliberate misinformation, make it viral and then to provoke street violence against their targets.

This has been happening over the last several years, firstly in a bid to get into power, then to stay in power. When just the Internet was there, this free-for-all platform for bullying and abuse was unthinkable. Any government, if it was genuinely concerned about the false information that is being spread, would first shut down the IT cell of the ruling party and its allied informally out-sourced/empowered groups who indulge in this activity.

Fact-check sites like SMHoaxslayer, AltNews, and many independent Twitterati have repeatedly called the bluff of the lies they manufacture and spread, but the so-called information portals such as OpIndia, Satyavijeyi and others continue their activities unabated.

"Any government, if it was genuinely concerned about the false information that is being spread, would first shut down the IT cell of the ruling party"

 

A former employee of the IT Cell, in an interview with Dhruv Rathee, has said that hundreds of fake Facebook and Twitter accounts have been created and each employee is required to cook up communally incendiary stories and make them viral through the ten phone numbers each of them has been given. He ominously claimed that the ruling party can create a communal clash within minutes anywhere in the country.

Irani must pay attention to these factories and not worry about the news portals that are working independently. The reasonable restrictions under the Constitution can be “in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.”

The violent rhetoric, morphed images and videos spread through WhatsApp, tweets and Facebook posts against minority communities, dalits, marginalised people and women clearly violate decency and morality, disturb public order, incite people to committing offences and in the case of countries like Pakistan, threaten friendly relations with foreign states.

The government must compel Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter to take user complaints seriously. Celebrities, politicians and ordinary people alike are exasperated with the policies of these platforms.

 

Facebook’s pathetic ‘help’

I have had the experience of complaining to Facebook on occasion. In December, a faculty member of a university was being abused and threatened with rape, mutilation and murder in the most foul language. A photo of her was posted for easy identification for anyone willing to follow through the threats. When I complained to Facebook, their reply was:

 

Thanks for your feedback 

Dec 31, 2017

Thanks for letting us know about this. We looked over the photo, and though it doesn't go against one of our specific Community Standards, you did the right thing by letting us know about it. No one should have to feel bullied or harassed on Facebook, and we’re sorry you had this experience. 

We know the suggestions below may not apply to every situation, but some people have found them helpful in dealing with offensive or bullying posts: 

  • Remove the person from your Facebook experience. You can learn how to unfriend or block someone in the Help Center.
  • Don’t retaliate. Most people who post insulting things are looking for a reaction, so not giving them one may discourage this kind of behavior in the future.
  • Reach out to someone. Ask for help from a close friend, family member or teacher who might understand what you're going through.
  • If you feel you're in immediate danger, contact your local authorities. You can print or take a screenshot of Facebook posts in case you need to share them later.

 

One has several questions for Facebook. What is the community it is referring to? And what are those standards? Which democratic civilised community allows abuse, murder threats and mutilation using foul language? The sanctimonious acknowledgement of “you did the right thing by letting us know about it. No one should have to feel bullied or harassed on Facebook, and we’re sorry you had this experience” is unbelievable.

By just removing the post from my wall or blocking the abuser is to delude oneself into a sense of false safety. All the followers of the criminals who are posting those images and words continue to get incited by the message. Only the victim will no longer see it.

Facebook is also advising us not to retaliate. Reach out to someone and contact local authorities. But as an enabler of this criminal activity and its spread, Facebook is unwilling to take any preventive action. On its page of Community Standards under ‘Helping to Keep You Safe’ it actually says:

Bullying and Harassment: How we respond to bullying and harassment.

We don’t tolerate bullying or harassment. We allow you to speak freely on matters and people of public interest, but remove content that appears to purposefully target private individuals with the intention of degrading or shaming them. This content includes, but is not limited to: 

  • Pages that identify and shame private individuals,
  • Images altered to degrade private individuals,
  • Photos or videos of physical bullying posted to shame the victim, and
  • Repeatedly targeting other people with unwanted friend requests or messages.

We define private individuals as people who have neither gained news attention nor the interest of the public, by way of their actions or public profession.   

So shaming is a greater offence than incitement to murder and rape. And more bizarrely, there is no shaming seen in messages that roundly abuse women in the vilest language and threaten to rape and murder them. That is some ‘utopian’ community standard that Facebook has put in place for its global “community” on whose patronage it has grown to be the giant corporation that it is.

This new utopia, where Twitter is also a player, tells us that intimidation and incitement to crime is not against community standards, and more importantly, it is not covered under the definition of ‘shaming.’

Interestingly, this extreme abuse of some users was passe, until the platforms slipped up in protecting the political forces. In the US, there was a Senate hearing held in November 2017 to investigate the role of social media platforms in allegedly facilitating Russian interference in the American presidential elections. A fresh round of outrage has broken out now with the outing of Cambridge Analytica and the breach of privacy of 50 million Facebook users. Republican Senator Rubio has said that these platforms have “Grown too big too fast, while the ethical framework has not kept pace with such growth.”

"The political entity that is threatening to come up with a code is itself in need of regulation"

 

The Indian government and political parties have either not reacted at all or some senior ministers have merely advised everyone to take abuse in one’s stride. This is the response of an uncaring political culture. Worse, it is a culture that sometimes has been colluding with these new ways of public opinion manipulation and control.

If any legislation or code is required, it is for this kind of toxic communication that is poisoning  public discourse and not for legitimate news activity, even if the powers-that-be do not like the views expressed on online news portals. The problem, however is, that the political entity that is threatening to come up with a code is itself in need of regulation.

 

 Padmaja Shaw is former professor of Communication and Journalism at Osmania University.

 

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