❏      In early March, a malicious online disinformation campaign led to law and order issues and made media headlines across the country.

  • Over a period of four days, there was a concocted and continuous narrative about migrant workers hailing from Bihar being subjected to violence in Tamil Nadu.
  • Though the Tamil Nadu police responded with alacrity and countered these false claims with factual reports, on the spot investigations and personalised appeals, the spectre of disinformation that has been highlighted should not be disregarded so easily.
  • However, the malaise of disinformation runs much deeper.
  • When one looks at what is happening in other parts of the world, it is apparent that disinformation campaigns have the potential to unfairly manipulate social and political outcomes.

Measures overseas versus the Indian scene

  • Keeping this in mind, several countries have already felt the need to have in place robust responses to disinformation.
  • The European Union (EU) has put out the Code of Practice on Disinformation 2022.
  • The United Kingdom has proposed enacting an Online Safety Bill which will expect social media platforms (intermediaries) to actively monitor problematic content.
  • The Union of India has only employed kneejerk measures such as Internet shutdowns across jurisdictions without due regard to the doctrine of proportionality.
  • A more studied, comprehensive and calculated set of legislative actions is required if there is to be a balance between allowing free speech under Article 19 of the Constitution of India, and protecting citizens from

falling prey to malicious disinformation.

  • In the case of Tehseen S. Poonawalla vs Union Of India (2018) the Supreme Court of India had held that it is the duty of the Union and State governments to take steps to curb dissemination of “irresponsible and explosive messages and videos having content which is likely to incite mob violence and lynching of any kind”.
  • Many people can recollect the panic India witnessed in many instances as a result of fake news during the early months of the COVID19 pandemic.

In the name of ‘unpalatable content’

  • Rather than coming up with a robust framework to tackle the root causes of disinformation, the Union has granted itself greater powers to strike down any content that is found to be unpalatable.
  • With the use of Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000, the Union Government has blocked access to any information online that it considers necessary in the interest of the sovereignty and the integrity of India, the

security of the state or public order.

  • More recently, the Union brought out the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 , or IT Rules, 2021, to regulate content by online publishers of news and social media intermediaries.
  • The recent draft amendments to the IT Rules, 2021, empower the Press Information Bureau, which functions under the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to ‘flag inaccurate and fake news related to government bodies on social media platforms’ amounts to disinformation.
  • It is apparent that the focus has more to do with containing criticism against the Union Government and its leaders than about blocking fake news as such.

Though the overall damage this disinformation campaign has caused was contained on this occasion, it serves as an ominous indicator of what lies ahead in the lead up to the general election in 2024, where voters will rely on information through social media more than any other source.