Author : Vrinda Agrawal
Co-Author : Paridhi Goel
There has been an increase in Fake News dissemination in the world with the boost in Information Technology. Recently, we came across messages suggesting unverified home remedies to cure Coronavirus, circulation of spurious images following the abrogation of Article-370, spreading fabricated statements associated with Demonetization, and so on. The escalating number of active users on social media networking sites has brought out a change in the way people express themselves. It has offered a platform to all its users to raise their voices against the odds, and reach a wide audience. Nowadays, people trust more in modern ways of communication rather than the traditional form of communication. People rely upon, accept, and forward such information easily without even checking the source from where the information is coming.
With the world facing its biggest fight from the global pandemic inflicted by the COVID-19, the authorities also have to deal with the people spreading false information that influences the citizens. The misinformation being spread by the people, often misguides the uninformed individual, affecting the standards of government behavior in the nation. The paper focuses on exploring the growing menace of fake news and strategies to curb its spread.
Dr. T.A.Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization addressing the Munich Security Conference on February 15, 2020, correctly expressed “We are not just fighting an epidemic; we are fighting an infodemic. Fake news spreads faster and more easily than this virus, and is just as dangerous.”
India has been through adverse effects of the dissemination of fake news. In 2016, when India witnessed demonetization, a new 2000 rupee note was introduced. It was claimed that a Nano- GPS tracking chip has been installed within the notes. This piece of false news floated all over the media for a significant period of time. Furthermore, in 2019, a message went viral on social media claiming that the Central Bank is taking back the entire 2000 rupee note, suggesting people to get their notes changed immediately. Later the Reserve Bank of India had to officially disprove the information.
Fake news prevailed heavily during the Indian General Elections 2019. The elections were named as “Country’s First Whatsapp Elections”. Morphed images of sufferings faced by natives of Kashmir were also surfaced following the abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution by the government.
When we talk about the current situation prevailing across the world, the same has given rise to the circulation of false information. Coronavirus brought about a plethora of messages recommending different home remedies to cure the virus. Earlier, there were messages claiming that the virus does not spread in heat and India being a country with an extreme climate, the virus would eventually succumb. In March 2020, when the Prime Minister announced one day Janta Curfew, information was floated that clanking and banging of “thalis” (plates) would create vibrations which would result in a decline of the Coronavirus cases. It was also said that Muslims are involved in the practice of deliberately spreading the virus by conducting a large religious congregation at the time where the situation is out of control.
It is clear that often people are influenced by such rumors and search for magical cures, while others spread conspiracies against the government to promote their ideologies. There are endless cases where false information is believed to be true and has misguided the society at large. Misinformation spread by people often misleads the one who is not informed. These messages have taken a toll on all of us in the past few months; it not only creates havoc and panic in the minds of people but has also impacted our mental health.
IMPACT OF FAKE NEWS DISSEMINATION
Manipulation of stock prices using false news has been a common practice. In 2013, Billions in stock value were wiped out in a matter of minutes just because of a fake tweet about an explosion that injured Barack Obama, former President of the United States.
It is to be noted that since 2017, India has observed above 30 killings resulting from baseless rumors spread through WhatsApp.
India is the biggest market having 400 million WhatsApp users, fake news spreads faster via WhatsApp and is the major cause of mob lynching’s, violence, and mass panic in India. The notable incident of lynching of Sadhus in Palghar district also resulted due to a piece of false information.
INTERNATIONAL PERSPECTIVE REGARDING FAKE NEWS
In League of Nations, 1936 the states signed an International Convention concerning the utilization of broadcasting in the cause of peace, where the state agreed to prohibit the spread of bogus news and the utilization of broadcasting for promoting propagandas. India is a signatory to this convention. This is the first International Convention that was formulated to bind the states and restrict expressions that may constitute a threat to international peace and security.
In the year 2018, anti-fake news laws were passed by a few countries; amongst which Malaysia was among the first countries. Unlike, in the United States the misinformation is spread by the foreign-backed campaigns, while in India the spread of misinformation is done by domestic campaigns itself, either by the people involved in political parties or the cyber army groups.
RESTRICTING SPREAD OF FAKE NEWS IN INDIA
In India, the Constitutional bodies, Judiciary, and the Government of States and Central India along with the social media outlets have taken various steps from the last few years to restrict people from spreading information that has no verified sources either by creating awareness among the nation or banning their accounts and taking legal action against them.
PROVISIONS OF INDIAN LAWS INDIRECTLY DEALING WITH FAKE NEWS
India does not have any special law that deals with the spread of fake news, although there are certain provisions and judgments that criminalize the form of speech and expression which may fall within the domain of fake news.
- Section 505(1)(b) of Indian Penal Code
With intent to cause, or which is likely to cause, fear or alarm to the public, or to any section of the public whereby any person may be induced to commit an offense against the State or against the public tranquillity;
It talks about an act which causes or likely causes fear or alarm in the public or any section of the public where the person is induced to execute an act which is against the State or Public Tranquility, this person shall be punished with imprisonment which might extend to three years or fine or both.
- Section 54 of the Disaster Management Act
Punishment for false warning.—Whoever makes or circulates a false alarm or warning as to disaster or its severity or magnitude, leading to panic, shall on conviction, be punishable with imprisonment which may extend to one year or with fine.
The provision punishes the person who circulates or creates false warnings about disaster or its severity or its magnitude which may cause panic and will be punished with imprisonment which may extend to one year or fine.
- Section 2 and Section 2A of the Epidemic Disease Act, 1897 states about the power conferred on the State Government and the Central Government of India;
Power to take special measures and prescribe regulations as to dangerous epidemic diseases.
It talks about the Government’s power to take special measures and prescribe regulations in case of an outbreak of any dangerous epidemic disease as it deems fit. In order to prevent the spread of the disease, the government may make temporary regulations such as inspecting the persons traveling via railway or port or any other means, its segregation, accommodation in hospitals or any other place in cases where the person is suspected to be infected by any such disease.
- Section 2(2)(b) of Epidemic Disease Act, 1897 provides this provision
“(b) the inspection of persons traveling by railway or otherwise, and the segregation, in hospital, temporary accommodation or otherwise, of persons suspected by the inspecting officer of being infected with any such disease.”
- Section 3 of the Epidemic Disease Act, 1897
Penalty.—Any person disobeying any regulation or order made under this Act shall be deemed to have committed an offense punishable under section 188 of the Indian Penal Code (45 of 1860).
It considers the act of the person who disobeys such regulations made by the State or Central Government as an offense which is punishable under Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code. Section 188 provides punishment to any person who disobeys the order promulgated by the public servant, which may cause danger to human life, health or safety with imprisonment for a term which extends to 6 months or fine which extends to ₹1000 or both
- Section 66A of the Information Technology (hereinafter referred to as IT) Act, 2000 prohibited dissemination of information, which a person knows to be false by means of computer or communication device. However, in the judgment given by the Supreme Court in the case of Shreya Singhal v. Union of Indiastruck down the provisions of Section 66A of the IT Act, 2000 as it was unconstitutional. It did not fall within reasonable restrictions to the constitutional right of freedom of expression as mentioned in Article 19 of the Constitution of India which guarantees freedom of expression to its citizens. Although, the right is not absolute in nature but is subjected to certain ‘Reasonable Restrictions’ keeping in view the sovereignty, security, and integrity of India.
- The IT (Intermediaries Guidelines) Rules, 2011 defines ‘intermediaries’ as a person who acts as a mediator or agent between the parties. It talks about illegal contents posted on social media platforms by any third party and such information must be removed. During the 2019 General Elections, the social media companies implemented a silent period in which they processed the reported violation within three hours. Thus, issued instructions regarding the use of social media for political advertisements or campaigns. Intermediaries like Google, Facebook, and some others took an initiative to set up an Information Trust Alliance (ITA) to remove such fake content.
- While Section 69A gives the power to the Central Government to issue directions to the Intermediaries to block or remove such contents which may violate the provisions of Article 19 to be accessed by the public. If the Intermediary fails to comply with these directions, it shall be punished with imprisonment up to seven years and also fine. Recently, after the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput, images of his dead body were circulated through social media handles which were very disturbing, thus the social media platforms immediately came into action and deleted those images.
The Supreme Court in Alakh Alok Shrivastava v. Union of India ordered the media organizations to have a responsibility and ensure that the unverified news that may cause panic is not circulated.
Constitutional Bodies of India includes The Press Council of India which amended the Guidelines for Accreditation of Journalists in the year 2018, which gave the power to disprove the conduct of the journalist either in a newspaper or news channel or even suspend the journalist in the account of creating propagandas or fake news. There are other bodies that look after the content aired by the TV channels like News Broadcasters Association (NBA), Indian Broadcast Foundation (IBF), and Broadcasting Content Complaint Council (BCCC).
CONCLUSION AND SUGGESTIONS
As of now, India lacks a dedicated law to deal with the dissemination of fake news. The need of the hour is to establish a satisfactory legal framework in order to address the issues pertaining to the spread of fake news. Fake News can be spread on various issues; culture, cure, prevention and treatment, nature and environment, business, and economy to name a few. A single instance of misinformation can bring the significance of truthful information to zero.
Certain steps need to be taken by the authorities to stop the spread of Fake News. The authorities shall be committed to detect the sources of such false information and debunk them on media platforms itself.
Media organizations need to consider it responsible for creating awareness amongst the people and must ensure that the information that is circulated has been substantiated. Additionally, the media should educate people by releasing a list of reliable and impersonal sources of information as to the sources to which an individual must believe. It should also verify the source of the news before it goes for publication and telecasting.
Moreover, spreading Fake News for personal profit should be dealt with rigorously and the government should aim at opening centers for research on disinformation by providing more funding to research organizations.
 Section 188 of Indian Penal Code(45 of 1860)
 AIR 2015 SC 1523
 Section 69A of The Information Technology Act, 2000
Writ Petition (Civil) No(s) 468/2020.