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Fake news and that other scary pandemic

Khmer Times No Comments Share:
wikimedia/Frederick Burr Opper

While the world is trying to get to grips with Coronavirus (COVID-19), social media is rife with all sorts of posts, ranging from information about the disease’s outbreak to false news about its origin and spread, not to mention offering untested “treatment”.

These misleading posts are further amplified when picked up by gratuitous sections of mass media.

This is a critical time for wider informed engagement on the subject, and the weeding out of all posts propagating false information and rumours. It means an action-oriented approach where social media platforms – identified as ‘intermediaries’ under the Information Technology (IT) Act, 2008 – need to step up to the plate and remove such content without waiting for law enforcement or judicial reference.

The immensely popular Facebook-owned WhatsApp is one such intermediary being used to propagate false content about COVID-19. In mid-February, there were reports of Facebook, Google and a few other intermediaries taking an initiative to involve many stakeholders to set up an Information Trust Alliance (ITA) to weed out fake content. This is yet to bear fruit. Meanwhile, the number and scope of fact-checkers these intermediaries employ remains abysmally low.

Likewise, GoogIe has been delaying the implementation of revised guidelines for intermediaries for months now, even as the expanded provisions as circulated earlier would have been very useful to tackle the dangerous misinformation doing the rounds during the current crisis. Law enforcement agencies, for their part, need to take action against content generators and transmitters of such fake news.

Some state police forces have made arrests, including 11 in Mizoram and one in Odisha in India this month. But there is a wider need to also look at the existing laws to directly address fake news. Provisions of Section 54 of the Disaster Management Act (DMA), 2005 – which deals with “false alarm or warning as to disaster or its severity or magnitude, leading to panic” – have been applied in the few arrests made so far.

Breaking this law can lead up to one-year imprisonment or a fine.

However, Section 54 is very specific to disasters, and the ambit today of fake news is much beyond that.

Section 505(1)(b) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) addresses a wider canvas – spreading false and mischievous content that results in “fear or alarm to the public, or to any section of the public whereby any person may be induced to commit an offence against the State or against the public tranquility”. Under this law, the convicted can be punished with imprisonment of a maximum of six years and a fine.

Applying Section 54 of DMA together with Section 505(1)(b) of IPC in the current scenario of the COVID-19 crisis could deter many.

But the need for legal provisions for fake news within the IT Act is more crucial now than ever before. The fact is that a large number of people quite often simply forward whatever they receive on their devices out of “Look, I’ve just seen this!” excitement and sheer ignorance.

The legal implications of this serious act are often not understood in many quarters who believe that whatever comes via their handheld devices must be true and important.

This calls for a larger awareness programme, in which the IT Act should take the lead and is supported by institutions and corporate orhanisations.

Clearly, a concerted war against Coronavirus has to be fought on multiple fronts. Fake news on the pandemic is one such critical front. ECONOMIC TIMES OF INDIA

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