Faking Narratives through Cyber Space and Influencing People’s Opinion – Curbing the Menace
Cyber Space has advanced to every sector of human need in a very short time. With the advent of the internet, cyberspace became the biggest arena for free and transparent speeches and interactions through online newspapers, articles, newsletters, social media platforms, etc. People started to interact virtually without even knowing the originator and receiver. The anonymity of identity is used in cyberspace as a medium of communication.
The disturbing factor behind any online content is its authenticity and source. Many news items are propagated from fake originators and often defraud the subscribers by conveying false narratives of incidents. False narratives are worse than fake news. We live in a reprogrammed world where the paper value is reduced with the new online documents, online evidence, online governance, etc., people are depending largely on the internet to construct an opinion on anything. For example: if a student is looking for a new college, earlier we had to visit the place to get a clear picture of that institution but today the cyber world has overtaken this process with online websites, reviews, brochures, etc.
On one hand, the cyber regime has made the services available to us at the doorsteps and information ready at a click, but to what extent one can rely on these narratives is up in the air.
An Era of False Narratives – The Grey Side of Cyber Space
In 1964 Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan pioneered the evolution of new media technologies to extend humanity itself. McLuhan concluded, “Any extension of ourselves” whether through technologies or mediums of communication, “affects the whole psychic and social complex. He warns of the future information revolution inclined to cyber space having a drastic effect on man’s psychological and social interactions. In 1983, the Philosopher Paul Virilio in his book, lost dimension, had anticipated how the instantaneity of information would gradually supplant the journey for gaining knowledge in the budding digital era. The internet and the contents it provides have indeed gained more trust than the paper world.
The idea of narratives roots far from the beginning of humankind in the form of storytelling and exchanging thoughts in open interactions, books, newspapers, etc. as the primitive source of creating, reflecting, conveying, and retaining societal knowledge. With the advent of cyberspace, the information revolution took the shades of cyberspace domain to influence public opinions about local, national, and world events. It surged with the entry of online websites, social media platforms, and influencers.
However, slowly they began to be an inevitable daily affair of people and they began to blindly rely on matters published in cyberspace. Fake news and reported cases of fraud may seem new to us, but they have only transformed into a new channel i.e., the cyber channel. False narratives of incidents are a common tool used by rivals to insult and abuse the opponent. With the increased bandwidth of the internet, content has become more accessible, they have been used widely as propaganda to shape the views and opinions of the public.
We are familiar with the cyber-attack that followed after the Pulwama attack to focus more on this concern. Social media and sites were flooded with misinformation that narrated incidents of mob attacks happening in the northern sides creating fright in the minds of Indians. Cyberspace is being used as an agitator to reach out to the maximum audience and manipulate individuals, groups, and societies through narratives. Lack of internet literacy, digital divide, and cultural biases have infiltrated cyberspace.
Covid 19 – A live example of how the Pandemic drifted to Misinfodemics
Amidst the pandemic, we witnessed how fake news and conspiracy theories spread across the country. In a study conducted and published in the Sage’s International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions journal as prevalence and source Analysis of COVID-19 Misinformation in 138 countries, India was recognized as the top source of misinformation (18.07%). The fake news about lockdowns across the states had resulted in the massive migration and tragedy that followed. The hospitals and shops were flooded with people buying out resources paving to food scarcity. The most dreadful was the false reports and cures about the spread of the virus.
The country was shattered and crowded in anxiety, panic, and fear. Official news and press conferences drowned in this chaos. Even religious myths began to originate as the first cases were reported in a group of Muslims in Delhi. Soon after that, the hashtag corona jihad was trending in social media, blaming particular religious communities as a collective danger to health and society. Some other myths were the consumption of urine and cow dung to enhance immunity. The vaccination drive in India is also hurdled in many areas driven by the myth that Indians are genetically immune to the virus and the vaccines are ineffective. Social media like Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram have played a pivotal role in intensifying this misinformation. This is how the false narratives frame the structure of our society.
Legal Framework in Action for Cyber Space
Cyber space is an intersection point of public and private rights. The legislature and judiciary have always tried to enforce a balance between these contrasting rights in the changing technological environment. On the one hand, the private parties demand their fundamental rights envisaged on the Constitution but at the same time, a line needs to be drawn to what extent one can exercise these rights in a multidimensional country like India to protect the public order, morality, and security of the nation. IT Act, 2000 is the legislation about cyberspace. Along with this, there are additional rules, guidelines, and standards set by lawmakers to reduce the friction and smooth working of the digital world.
The provisions of the IT Act do not expressly provide protection against fake news. The only chance is S.66 D. Earlier S.66A of the IT Act was enacted by the 2008 amendment act as an effective tool used by the state to handle offensive and menacing messages in social media. However, in the decision of the Supreme Court in Shreya Singhal v. Union of India. The Supreme Court has elevated the scope of free speech in the internet domain. It also widened the autonomy of the intermediaries by reiterating its exemption from liability under S. 79 of the IT Act, 2000. Thus, the fake news is unaddressed and elevated from the sweep of the IT Act.
The provisions of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 are also trained to cope with the flow of false narratives through cyber space. S. 499 and S. 500 can be attracted in case of defamation of a person’s reputation by any means. Further S. 503 and S. 153 IPC can also be invoked in certain situations. S. 54 of the Disaster Management Act penalizes false alarms and warnings creating panics at the time of disasters. However, they all are toothless and naive to subdue this menace.
In the case of Anuja Kapur v. Union of India, The petitioner urged the need for a proper forum to address the spread of fake news in social media and regulatory frameworks to prevent hoax news. In the advent of fake news and misinformation flooded in the social media on Indo-Pak tensions followed by the Pulwama attack, portrayed through previous air shows and photos of crashed aircraft peddling the social media into a virtual battlefield. However, the Supreme Court refused to entertain the PIL.
However, on a later occasion at the first quarter of 2021, the Supreme Court has made a pragmatic step in curbing fake news in social media by issuing direction to the Central Government in response to a Public Interest Litigation filed by advocate Vineet Jindal seeking a legal framework to regulate fake news and hate speeches in social media. The petitioner substantiated how traditional cyberspace has evolved to a vicious circle of crimes and also pleaded for the automatic removal of fake contents within a short span to break the chain of misinformation. The bench comprising Justice S A Bobde, A S Bopanna, and V Ramasubramanian had observed the rise in communal violence incidents triggered through false narratives and urged the need for a proper legislative mechanism to curb the menace.
The new IT rules (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) 2021 has been incorporated by the Government to impose strict obligations on intermediaries to provide quicker takedown of misinformation and grievance redressal officers to check false identities and narratives propagated through cyberspace. The Centre claims to fill in the legal Vacuum with effective utilization of these rules. But, at the same time, the public has raised the issue of state censorship over their social media opinions by the disguised move of the government. The true benefit of the rules can be evaluated only after the inception of its implementation.
Cyber space has become a vehicle of misinformation and propaganda in the current digital age. Freedom of speech and expression guaranteed under Article 19(1) (a) of the Constitution is an inevitable part of human life but they are not absolute, Article 19(2) limits its scope by imposing reasonable restrictions. Falsehood propagates much faster than truth in the cyber world, therefore it is very important to rein in this evil before inciting bigger harm to the social order. The intermediary platforms must develop compactable safety standards and real-time takedowns to curb this menace. Many social media companies have restricted the maximum number of shares of a particular post to limit the speed of transmission.
The intermediaries should also take due diligence in preventing the spread of false information. A strong and real-time check system should be installed by the platforms for early detection of hoax news. Proper education and awareness should be given to the public to sort the authentic news and not to misuse the social accounts to spread falsehood. Politicizing journalism is also a hindrance to the free flow of authentic news; therefore, journalism should also reform into independent and fair channels of democracy. The state has a pivotal role in upgrading its legislative measures to the international standards and follow the footprints of developed nations. Only an integrated approach can curb this cyber menace and transmit true information to the public.