A twofold approach to win the war on misinformation - Hindustan Times

A twofold approach to win the war on misinformation

May 18, 2022 10:10 PM IST

Two recommendations — transparency and regulation — seek to bring governance of speech within the ambit of the democratic process.

Public opinion is the currency of democracy, and, therefore, vested interests cannot be allowed to hijack public opinion through the organised dissemination of misinformation. While this seems obvious, there is a morass of crosstalk and obfuscation on this issue.

Bringing governance of speech under State purview is fraught with risks to free speech. (Shutterstock) PREMIUM
Bringing governance of speech under State purview is fraught with risks to free speech. (Shutterstock)

The Future of India Foundation’s report, Politics of Disinformation, seeks to make two points: Disinformation is a political problem, and any way forward must be located within the bipartisan democratic political process. An attempt to seek resolution within a technocratic or solely government framework will not just be ineffective but also lack democratic legitimacy.

Second, the content moderation-driven approach to disinformation by all major social media platforms is a red herring designed to distract from the far larger problem of amplified distribution of disinformation as part of business models. Clarity and agreement on these two precepts provide a framework for the future.

Two recommendations — transparency and regulation — seek to bring governance of speech within the ambit of the democratic process. One of the biggest hurdles in being able to curb misinformation and understand its impact on our society and polity is the lack of transparency by social media platforms.

Even when platforms have disclosed certain kinds of information, the data is often not presented in a manner that facilitates easy analysis. It is important, therefore, to bring a comprehensive transparency law to compel relevant disclosures by platforms to facilitate action by a wider group of stakeholders. Such a law should include safeguards for user privacy since platforms are a repository of the private information of citizens. Legislative initiatives, in the United States and Europe, seek to address these issues. However, India must enact a comprehensive transparency law to ensure parity in India. Social media platforms are increasingly becoming the primary ground for public discourse. The status quo, where a handful of individuals heading technology companies have inordinate control over this discourse, lacks transparency and democratic legitimacy.

Moreover, this approach is inefficient: Platforms have been unable to evolve a coherent framework to stop misinformation and have instead responded erratically to events and public pressure. The absence of a uniform baseline approach, enforcement, and accountability vitiated the information ecosystem. External regulation is, thus, desirable.

However, bringing governance of speech under State purview is fraught with risks to free speech. It is, thus, proposed to constitute a regulator (answerable to Parliament and not the executive) with statutory powers to lay out broad processes for governance of speech, set transparency standards and audit platforms for compliance; and advisory powers to develop perspective on key misinformation themes especially those with public policy implications. Such a model will increase democratic contest by moving contested speech issues into the political sphere and facilitate transparency of powerful technology platforms.

Structural reforms are also required in platform design and treatment. Two issues are notable. First, blanket immunity for platforms as “intermediaries” no longer makes sense since platforms are far more interventionist with user content. Therefore, platform accountability should be linked to their distribution model. In this regime, platforms would either adopt a hands-off approach to content and constrain distribution to organic reach (chronological feed); or exercise editorial choice and take responsibility for amplified content. Further, platforms must be compelled to default to a chronological feed, allowing users to make an informed choice to opt-in for a curated feed. Also, digital literacy as a means to reduce misinformation works only if done at scale. Social media platforms must increase digital literacy initiatives with a target for outreach linked to the user base.

Finally, platforms must recognise the impact their products are having in India and the global South. This means prioritising investments and capacity commensurate to their impact instead of revenue and supporting transparency and knowledge sharing initiatives here on a par with the West. Similarly, India has primarily focused on controlling social media platforms through legalistic instruments and threats of criminal liabilities. Instead, it should locate its regulatory efforts in the broader democratic political process and by bringing about a comprehensive transparency law to force meaningful disclosures by platforms to enable a broader community of informed stakeholders.

Ruchi Gupta is executive director, Future of India Foundation. This article is based on the Foundation’s report, “Politics of Disinformation” 

The views expressed are personal

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