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Stop the democratisation of misinformation

Both the Election Commission of India and social media companies are acting to curb fake news. But to what extent?

editorials Updated: Oct 18, 2018 13:18 IST
Hindustan Times
The major social media sites have pledged to join hands with the Election Commission of India to fight misinformation during elections(File photo)

About a decade ago, an infant social media almost brought about democratic revolutions in countries such as Egypt, Iran and Tunisia, by connecting people and allowing an exchange of ideas in unprecedented ways. But as it grows in its reach, influence and sophistication, it is, in many ways, posing a challenge for the functioning of democracies — which are yet to formulate an apt response to the crisis. From individual privacy, large data breaches to social manipulation, the charges against social media have grown to subvert democracy itself.

With the number of Internet users in India going up, this poses a threat here too. And, anticipating that, the Election Commission of India (ECI) has wisely taken precautionary measures. In the last few months, it has organised regional workshops for poll officers, appointed cyber security nodal officers, and plans to have security audits of third-party poll-related applications and websites. It also plans to propose the inclusion of election data as critical information under the IT Act, 2000.

But if the allegations of Russian interference in the US elections have any substance to them, it’s indeed an alarming thought for democracies, more so for the ones like India which are undergoing a tremendous social and economic transformation. Such a threat won’t be boundary-specific; manipulation can come from outside as well as inside the country. Not that India is any stranger to rumours and fake information, or that the physical vandalism in elections is new. These are the issues that the ECI had successfully dealt with over the years. The modern avatar of these digital manipulations don’t coerce you physically, but, by its nature, it allows anyone anywhere to easily spread misinformation and affect the outcome — the Internet-led democratisation of information knows no boundary; so does, it would appear, the Internet-led democratisation of misinformation.

What complicates things further is the social media companies’ failure to stop applications hosted on their platform from slyly extracting personal information, which can help them chart out the user’s world view without her knowledge, and feed her back apt information in order to nudge her towards a desired political view.

Major social media companies have pledged to join hands with the ECI. Fake information is unquestionably bad but we must not lose sight of the larger picture — like governments, we can’t trust social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, almost monopolies now, to be the arbiter of truth or the final word on privacy.

The ECI’s measures, and social media’s promise, appear enough, prima facie. But to what extent? We will have to wait till 2019 for the answer.

First Published: Oct 18, 2018 13:18 IST