Author: Ojasvi Gupta, Student at Xavier Law School, St.Xavier’s University.
Social media has evolved into a vital tool for promoting content sharing and social networking. The use of social media has both advantages and disadvantages. This article aims to illustrate Singapore’s measures to counter fake news through the Protection against Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, 2019. This article attempts to address the question of whether India should have a similar act to the POFMA, 2019 or anything similar to regulate the rise of false news in India, and it demonstrates how the Act infringes on some constitutional rights such as Article 19 and 21. This study provides insights into the significance of the Singapore POFMA,2019, the problem of rising fake news in India and ways of fake news authentication. The insights from the study might help social media platforms, governments, users and researchers.
In India, the matter of “fake news” has become a major concern. Fake news has existed since the invention of the printing press, but in the age of the Internet and social media, it has found a huge audience. There is no comprehensive legislation in India that addresses fake news particularly. However, some provisions in the Indian Penal Code make certain types of speech illegal, which may be equivalent to fake news and may refer to social media or online material.
On May 8, 2019, Singapore passed the Protection from Online Falsehood and Manipulation Act (POFMA). The Act, which had nine parts and 62 pieces, attracted worldwide attention immediately, and bouquets and brickbats rained down thick and heavy. Notwithstanding the fact whether the act would deliver or not, the Singapore government agreed to act in the face of a challenging and complex issue.
During the last few years, fake news and disinformation campaigns have become a subject of controversy. India, too, has experienced problems as a result of the spread of fake news on social media sites. There has been a noticeable decrease in the amount of internet platform-fueled, mob-related violence, thanks to a slew of initiatives imposed by the Indian government on social media. India has 351.4 million active social media users as of 2019, with a comparatively low penetration rate. Despite this, Indians are the world’s biggest Facebook and YouTube users, with the country’s social media population rising at a staggering 24 percent year over year. It is only normal for operations to be carried out.
It’s only normal that actions carried out in cyberspace on social media sites transform into physical acts. It is in the country’s best interests not to encourage social media and other next age cyberspace outlets to be used for illicit acts, hate speech, incitement to abuse, and targeted election campaigning to sway the democratic process.
SIGNIFICANCE OF SINGAPORE’S PROTECTION FROM ONLINE FALSEHOODS AND MANIPULATION ACT, 2019.
POFMA was enacted in Singapore for four major purposes. Firstly, to deter the dissemination of false statements of fact and to allow countermeasures to such dissemination. Second, to prohibit the funding, marketing, and sponsorship of online locations in Singapore that makes repeated false claims. Third, to allow for the detection, monitoring, and prevention of concerted inauthentic behavior and other forms of online account and bot misuse. Finally, to allow actions to be taken to improve the disclosure of information about paying material with a political goal.
One of the issues facing the international community is determining whether a piece of material or news being shared on the internet is hateful or false. When such news is considered an innocent joke, a law and order issue, or a threat to national security, it is unclear. POFMA makes an effort to overcome this conundrum. A piece of news is considered to be false and capable of action if and only if it satisfies two conditions, according to Article 7, Part II of the Act. First and foremost, it must be a misleading assertion of fact. Second, dissemination of this false information is likely to jeopardize Singapore’s stability, as well as public health, welfare, tranquility, and finances. Second, circulation of this false information is likely to threaten Singapore’s security or endanger public health, peace, tranquility, or finances, or adversely affect Singapore’s relations with other countries, or impact election results, or incite feelings of resentment, hostility, or ill will, or erode public trust in the government or its institutions. Article 10 of Part III of the act empowers every Singapore government minister to label news as false and take appropriate measures to address it. Article 11 Part III is about expressing a “Correction Direction.” A Correction Direction may be given to an individual to convey a Correction Notice (Statement nullifying a false statement and adding a related true statement and/or its relation next to the false statement) to all individuals who have obtained the false information within a prescribed time period, and/or to publish the correction notice in a Singapore newspaper or other print publications. Article 12 Part III empowers the Competent Authority to issue a “Stop Communication” directive, and Article 16 Part III empowers the Minister to direct the Information Communication Media Development Authority (IMDA) to order the intifada. Article 12 Part III empowers the Competent Authority to impose a “Stop Communication” directive, and Article 16 Part III encourages the Minister to instruct the Information and Media Development Authority (IMDA) to issue a “Data Blocking Order” directing the internet access service provider to prevent access to an online location for all end users. An individual who provides internet intermediary services has been identified as an Internet Intermediary (like social networking services, search engine, content aggregator, internet based messaging service, video sharing services, etc.). Directions to internet intermediaries and suppliers of mass media content are covered in Part IV of POFMA. Article 21 refers to a “Targeted Correction Direction,” in which the internet broker that was used to spread the false information is obliged to give a correction note to all end users in Singapore who had viewed the false information within a given time frame. Article 22 also covers the issuing of “Disabling Directs”. Furthermore, Article 22 deals with the issuing of “Disabling Directions” by an internet intermediary to prevent access to a given false information by an end user in Singapore, while Article 28 deals with “Access Blocking Orders.” The act’s fifth section deals with declaring internet places. “When an internet location is responsible for propagating three or more separate false claims pursuant to active Part III and/or Part IV directions,” such a Declaration occurs. When an online location has been “Declared,” its owner is obliged to remind all end users who visit the online location of its declaration status. IMDA may also be given instructions to restrict entry to the declared online location for a set period of time.
Part VI of the impugned act addresses instructions to the internet broker for the purpose of preventing inauthentic online accounts and orchestrated inauthentic conduct.
Other Measures were covered in Part VII of the act, while Part VIII states the selection of alternative authority during elections and other relevant occasions. Miscellaneous matters are dealt with in Part IX of the Act.
THE PROBLEM OF RISING FAKE NEWS IN INDIA
The dissemination of misinformation and disinformation in the media is becoming a major social problem. It is triggering protests and lynchings on the streets, as well as a toxic environment on the internet. Rumours, morphed photos, click-baits, motivated stories, unverified facts, and planted stories for various interests spread very quickly among India’s 35 crore internet users in the age of the internet (WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter). There have been numerous cases where online rumours have resulted in the deaths of innocent people. Leaders have been known to remove tweets after discovering false information they had shared previously. WhatsApp is the most susceptible site in India to false news.
WhatsApp is the platform in India that is most open to fake news. Large numbers of Indians (the majority of whom are uninformed) are seen as the most vulnerable to false news because they use mobile internet to send regular “good morning” messages. False news about rival politicians and parties infiltrated the media during the Assembly Elections. The misuse of cell phones and the internet continues to be an issue.
CAN INDIA HAVE A PROTECTION FROM ONLINE FALSEHOODS AND MANIPULATION ACT TOO?
With the government pressing large companies for more content control and technology companies trying to clean up one mess after another, India’s fight against fake news has become increasingly fierce. This is why WhatsApp has limited forwarded messages to five, and Facebook has struggled to develop an impartial Artificial Intelligence framework to identify and remove false news (which it still hasn’t completely accomplished).
If India follows Singapore’s lead and enacts a law, it should proceed cautiously to guarantee that the law’s purpose is not to stifle freedom of expression but to protect people from the dangers of fake news and false facts. It will take a delicate balancing act to ensure credibility without jeopardizing free expression. India needs to take a more profound significance. This involves identifying false news, making a distinction between fact and opinion (with only the former falling under the ambit), addressing privacy issues under Article 21 of the Constitution, protecting press freedom, and always upholding the law’s due process.
The POFMA Act violates Article 19 1 (a) of the Indian Constitution
While Article 19(1)(a) states that freedom of speech and expression are guaranteed, Article 19(2) allows for “reasonable restrictions.” The Supreme Court of India has ruled that a restriction must be narrowly tailored or narrowly interpreted in order to abridge or restrict only what is absolutely necessary in order to be reasonable.
It is argued that the Supreme Court of India in Shreya Singhal vs Union of India stated that the freedom to express unpalatable views, cause annoyance, inconvenience, or grossly offend is granted so long as it does not amount to incitement leading to eminent casual connection with any of the eight subject matters set out in Article 19 is not violated (2). Public order, as defined in Article 19(2), is almost synonymous with public peace, safety, and tranquillity. The term “public order” refers to any disturbance of public tranquillity, such as a small riot, but the terms “public order” and “public tranquillity” are not always synonymous. A man playing loud music in his house late at night, for example, may disrupt public tranquilly but not public order.
Therefore, such act as disturb only the serenity of others may not fall within the term public order as said in Madhu Limaye v. SDM Monghyr
Any restriction on speech must have a proximate connection with a specific head set out in Article 19(2). The government cannot restrict speech merely in the ‘public interest’, or because it is ‘false’, neither of which are heads under Article 19(2), as impugned in the provision of the Singapore POFMA. Therefore, if the government wanted to restrict “fake news” it would need to prove that “fake news” either caused harm because of its content (defamation, decency or morality) or that it was insightful leading to violent consequences (public order, incitement to an offence). The objective of the act is unclear, Protection from Online Falsehood and Manipulation, does not clarify whether it applies to private communications (WhatsApp chats), social media (Facebook) or online media (an online-only news organisation). The flip side of this issue is that there is very little certainty about who a “journalist” is today, with citizens receiving news from a wide variety of sources on internet.
The act therefore caters to a huge net of speech and to a heterogeneous field of content, some of which have a diverse set of underlying problems. Inaccurate, false, misleading, biased, manipulation, propaganda and advertisement are just some of the words to describe what we now call “fake news”. Using an exact term to identify the issue with a piece of content allows us to create targeted and meaningful solutions. For example, the type of regulation needed to regulate factual inaccuracies in a newspaper article is very different from the type of regulation needed to ensure paid advertising can be distinguished from news stories.
Another factor raises questions is that if this act gives specific officers virtually unfettered discretion to label and restrict expression they disagree with as “false statements of fact.” Under the provision given by the impugned act, a statement may be found to be false “if it is false or misleading, whether wholly or in part, and whether on its own or in the context in which it appears.” This definition raises concern that a Minister can take a portion of a statement out of its context and direct its correction or removal on that basis. Taken to its logical conclusion, a statement that is factually accurate as a whole may nevertheless be restricted on the basis that a portion of it has been taken out of context and labeled “false.”
A penal law restricting freedom of speech and expression is liable to be struck down for vagueness and providing manageable standards. Section 66-A of the IT Act, 2000 was held to be unconstitutional on the ground of being vague and not providing manageable standards when compared to more clearly defined offences in section 66 and section 66-B to 67-B and in Indian Penal Code.
India is not concerned with the necessity of the POFMA or the wisdom of the policy underlining it, but only whether the restriction is in excess of the requirement, and whether the law has overstepped the constitutional limitations. Restricting speech on the ground that it is “false statement” would likely lead to widespread confusion about what kind of speech the government was restricting. The line between advocacy and deception is often imperceptible, with compelling arguments often cherry- picking or manipulating facts. Kashmir is a living example where free speech has been left entirely to the whims of the executive, and it has led to the denial of internet services, the arbitrary blocking of websites, and the persecution of journalists. All speech is free other than that which the government restricts because it is has a proximate nexus with the specific harms identified by the heads of Article 19(2).
False information is frequently created and circulated in order to gain electoral currency and political advantage. Frequently, the administration’s own party and agencies are involved (through the purchase of undisclosed political ads and IT cells). It’s a growing trend in most other countries, particularly China and Russia, in which internet exploitation and control are rampant. In this era of technological media, anyone can create and propagate new for undisclosed benefits, so any future legislation to combat fake news should take the big picture into consideration rather than blaming the media and reacting in a predictable manner. Regulating false information is a difficult task: failing to control troll comments would only lead to national and international instability, while over-controlling it could harm democracy. To restore trust in social media while not jeopardizing internet and media freedom, public education, strengthened regulations, and efforts by tech companies to develop appropriate algorithms for news filtration will be required. In Italy, for example, the subject of “recognizing fake news” has been added to the school curriculum as an experiment. In addition, India should place a strong emphasis on cyber security, internet education, and fake news education in all academic curricula.
Therefore, India ought not to follow in the footsteps of Singapore or even Russia, where anti-fake news legislation gives governments much too much control to suppress information that is hostile to them and their purpose. However, the ban on fake accounts and bots is that being said, a positive feature of POFMA that is significant to India.
 Singapore Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, 2019
 AIR 1971 SC 2486.
 AIR 1971 SC 2486.
 Dalbir Singh v. State of Punjab, AIR 1962 SC 1106.
 Shreya Singhal vs Union of India, 2015 5 SCC 1.