Insights into Editorial: Best antidote to fake news and hate speech is more speech
Some incidents in the past few years have shown that society and its conflicts manifest themselves in what has come to be known as “fake news” — and the internet does aid its rapid distribution. That is not the malaise of the internet or social media platforms, however. It is the actors, very often, competing political and other special interests which are producers of such content. But, fake news is a huge problem and demands an urgent solution.
Why be concerned about this?
In our country, there are roughly 240 million smartphone users and over 500 million feature phone users. The Internet and Mobile Association of India estimates about 370 million internet users in our country — most of them are on mobile internet. The connected world and the internet services at this scale today have created an environment, where everyone is a publisher.
- This is a staggering community of people; all of diverse views and opposing tastes, combatants, families, friends, foes and critics, together inhabiting a world of facts and post-truths. It is in this chaotic, complex, sociological and political sphere that different actors, including the internet and social media platforms, operate. This presents both new opportunities and complex challenges for society.
- Another concerning aspect for Indians is the almost non-existent reaction from both the powerful Indian news media and the country’s vibrant tech industry. Both seem almost conspicuous through their absence in this global debate. At a time when the Indian populace has been demonstrated time and again to be highly susceptible to misleading and fake news, it is worrying that the arbiters of information in our country are keeping quiet on this rapidly escalating issue.
So, what is the risk of keeping quiet?
Almost all the solutions currently being put forward seem to be emanating from the West and primarily the US. While Silicon Valley and its ilk have generally been at the forefront of most technological upheavals in the last decade, the subject of news monitoring and filtering is just too important and delicate to be entrusted to just an elite few. Furthermore, there is also the risk that solutions devised in the West might be ill-suited for other parts of the globe due to socio-cultural differences. For example, solutions devised for balancing discourse in a two-party system such as in the US might struggle with the subtle distinctions in a country hosting close to two thousand parties each catering to the needs of the country’s myriad communities.
- Furthermore, the entwinement between industry, media and government runs far deeper in the developing world as compared to much of the West. As it is India ranks 133rd out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders’ Freedom of Information rankings, and has been proven time and again as a dangerous place for reporting the truth. Add to this a nebulous mix between media houses, corporate and political parties, and it is easy to see how an ill-construed mechanism hinged on the credibility of major publications can skew the balance of democratic power in a developing country.
- Hence, any solutions that do not take these nuances into account will struggle to succeed at a global level. At best they might have a lesser impact than desired, and at worst they could help dismantle already tenuous forms of information transparency in the developing world.
- Also, standing by on the sidelines, waiting for someone else to solve the problem would be akin to handing over the reins of our entire public discourse, which is today increasingly being shaped by social media, to external entities. Needless to say that the consequences of such inaction could be calamitous. We need to stand up and speak now, or else risk having our entire public discourse directed by algorithms which we had no say in designing.
But, why it’s a difficult problem to solve?
By its very nature, social media and the online world at large is democratic in nature. Every user claims the right to view content s/he seems fit, and expects that right to be maintained and defended.
- If there happens to be some sort of ‘corrective action’ taken by a social media site such as Facebook or Twitter, users tend to go up in arms.
- Even if these actions are triggered to maintain law and order or a software bug, users would consider this as a bias against their points of view or an attempt to clampdown on dissent.
What needs to be done?
- The lasting and most powerful antidote to rumours, fake news and hate speech is more speech. That is a strong logical counter-speech — a strong rebuttal of the rumours and real-time reassurance to the affected people by the state, the community, newspersons and the media.
- The current climate also underscores the importance of independent fact-checkers. They will help nurture a culture of fact-checking and an atmosphere where each individual will be more rigorous in their assessment when engaging with different types of information on different media and diverse platforms.
- Some solutions by internet giants, such as FiB, which focus on ensuring information is sourced from ‘reliable’ sources are in many ways looking to re-establish the old world order of trust in established/reputed institutions.
- Human editors are also an option and it is highly likely that any solution will have to incorporate some form of human input on a regular basis.
- There is also an effort being made to burst the filter bubbles of readers by showcasing to them news from across their reading spectrum. Projects such as Escape Your Bubble might possibly be the best way to tackle the problem as they focus on enlightening users with more varying information rather than trying to restrict or repudiate their views.
- The last gasp approach, however, might be to just censor news that is construed to be fake or misleading. This though would be a folly and would go against everything the Internet holds dear – primarily the freedom of speech. However, commercial institutions such as Facebook might find this the easiest way out as evidenced by their previous actions.
Social media platforms are a modern-day Roman Forum. These platforms are agnostic wondrous architectures, enabling different forms and types of self-expression. However, the need for checks around credibility and authenticity seem to have long forgone. What stays is the need for freedom. Which is warranted, of course. Yet, at the same time, need a sense of direction. With a critical sense of objectivity. Social media services can simply not afford to step in the conversation and regulate it.
Internet intends to bring people together, discover ideas, unlock opportunities and form communities. In this connected world, while we try and build all safeguards by investing in fact-checking tools and processes that prevent the spread of hate and fake news on the internet, ultimately we all have to think and reflect upon our own behaviour. We have to decide whether we want to build a Hobbesian world where a human being’s life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” or a world where we push the boundaries of openness, debate and integrity. The latter is crucial for preserving the sanity and purity of fact.