State need not run fact-checking units
While fact-checking entities have an important role to play, fact-checking by itself is not sufficient to address the challenges of information dysfunction
Given the number of proposals for fact-checking units in flight, it wouldn’t be misplaced to call 2023 the year of the executive-run fact-checking units. The ministry of electronics and information technology [MeitY] (April), Karnataka (August), and Tamil Nadu (November) announced setting them up. And, we may see more as states such as Uttarakhand have stated their intention to do so. The Union minister for home affairs has also reportedly advised senior police officers to set up fact-checking units in their departments.
Faced with complex challenges in a polluted information ecosystem seemingly overrun with false information, propaganda, hate speech and other kinds of problematic speech, there are indeed calls for governments to intervene.
Set aside for a moment that these calls can be motivated, at least in the near term, depending on alignment with who is currently in government. Thus, the executive branch of the government, whether at the Union or state level, feels compelled to do “something” invoking the age-old ‘politicians fallacy’.
There are several reasons why executive-run fact-checking units are flawed. For now, let’s consider two buckets — their institutional design, and the reliance on misplacing the locus of the problem resulting in driving a government intervention at the wrong layer of the, undoubtedly, complicated set of problems.
First, with regard to design, all flavours of fact-checking units we have seen proposed this year envision some form of information control. MeitY’s guidelines are drafted such that intermediaries (social media platforms, internet services providers, cloud services providers, and so on) can be expected to remove information about the government that a government-designated unit deems to be “fake” or “false”. It is currently under challenge in the Bombay high court with a verdict expected in December.
The Karnataka and Tamil Nadu variants, which may yet evolve, appear to go a step further by seeking law enforcement involvement, and prosecution, either directly or through consultation, which can effectively criminalise information. While the tender process in Karnataka is being run by the department of ITBT, the “point-of-contact” will be from the state home ministry. Notably, most of India’s International Fact-Checking Network-certified fact-checkers did not even participate.
Tamil Nadu’s unit envisages “legal action” through consultation with an advisory team and then forwarding them to the relevant authorities. Unlike Karnataka, this unit has forgone the tender process and appointed a “mission director” with limited transparency. The state governments of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have also somehow managed the dubious achievement of, at least on paper, being even less consultative than MeitY.
In the context of information and news, executive-appointed and controlled entities’ incentives will not necessarily be aligned with the public interest, and instead serve the political class. The Press Information Bureau’s fact-check unit exemplifies this, but it is, currently, not able to ensure information is taken down nor seek prosecution. That may not hold for the 2023 proposals.
Second, such units are aimed at the wrong part of the problem for state intervention. Fact-checks generally rely on a true-false frame that experts such as Samuel Woolley and Renée DiResta have argued is too narrow given the breadth of issues, and insufficient since interpretations or opinions, whether genuine or with malicious intent, are not necessarily “debunkable”. The true-false frame also falls short in situations where information is emergent, scarce, or otherwise lacking verifiability such as natural disasters, and conflict situations.
In an adversarial information space, various motivated parties are competing for narrative dominance, and exploiting low levels of information literacy and existing social fissures by generating low-quality or unreliable information at scale, even recycling them periodically or in different contexts/places. By contrast, fact-checking is a high-effort, low reward and Sisyphean endeavour, further hamstrung by perverse incentives across the information ecosystem which prioritise “engagement”, novelty, speed, and conflict over accuracy and reason.
Often, even trust in a fact-checking action is driven by trust in/political alignment with the fact-checkers themselves. Deeper social problems such as anti-minority views and misogyny may be partially stemmed, but cannot be resolved at the layer of differentiating true information from false information. Yet, a pluralistic society must endeavour to resolve them or minimise their impact to the extent that it is possible to do so.
While independent fact-checking entities have an immensely important role to play and must be supported, fact-checking by itself is not sufficient to address the many challenges of information dysfunction today. This raises the question of whether mirroring such efforts minus the independence is the appropriate avenue for State intervention, and if these resources are better targeted elsewhere.
The complexity coupled with the poor institutional design also leaves room for selective action against dissenting voices, rights defenders, journalists and politicians. Even if we trust the intention and execution capabilities of those proposing such mechanisms today, these flaws leave the possibility of misuse or weaponisation in the future open.
Public interest is better served by State interventions playing an enabling role, instead of a controlling one. Roughly one-sixth of IFCN’s 119 active signatories are from India. Facilitating their work, and that of other independent fact-checking entities, either directly through grants or indirectly, can have a far greater impact than seeking to reinvent the wheel.
Journalists and fact-checkers can be targeted for the work they do in different contexts both by instruments of the State and by non-State actors (who may ideologically be aligned with the State anyway).
Mechanisms for their protection, grievance redressal, legal aid and so on, could also be a possible intervention. It must be noted that these need to be transparent and non-discriminatory to prevent selective application.
Prateek Waghre is the executive director at the Internet Freedom Foundation. The views expressed are personal