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+ the Information and Broadcasting (I&B) Ministry to withdraw its statement from yesterday which
announced new guidelines
+ to govern the accreditation of journalists if they were found indulging in fake news. The directive follows all-round criticism and apprehensions that the new rules could in effect be misused to curb press freedoms.
While the move has now been reversed, the fact is that enough safeguards against misleading or false news by media personnel already exist within our current laws. Furthermore, organizations like the Press Council of India (PCI), for newspapers, and News Broadcasters Association, for television channels, already exist to ensure press accountability.
It is important to distinguish here between fake news – created and disseminated consciously despite full knowledge of it being false – and inaccurate reporting where errors in news coverage sometimes creep in by mistake, but without any malintent. Such errors can always be corrected and it is important to define fake news accurately. The Editors Guild or NBA can do this. It should not be done by government.
Though the now-withdrawn new rules would have affected only a small number of journalists (
2,403 currently registered with Press Information Bureau), there were three broad problems with this.
* First, that any journalist who had a complaint registered against her would automatically have had their accreditation suspended, till a regulating agency decided on the matter. Since anyone can file a complaint, this, it was rightly feared, would open the route for misuse. Everyone is innocent until proven guilty. It was a wrong idea to allow punitive action against a journalist without having first proven that he or she had deliberately and intentionally spread news which they knew to be false.
* Second, the vast majority of fake news is created online by vested interests who want to propagate shifts in public opinion by manufacturing false news. This includes politicians and those supported by political parties, who also deploy vast resources online to then propagate these manufactured messages. These regulations would not have covered these fake news creators.
* Third, to guard against misuse, the definition of fake news itself must only be regulated by and enforced by industry self-governing industry bodies like PCI, NBA or the Editors Guild, not by government.
What exactly is fake news?
Fake news is ‘news’ that’s been created knowing it isn’t true. Unlike inaccurate reporting, which newspapers by and large correct and/or apologise for, fake news isn’t accidental or a genuine mistake. It isn’t even bias. It’s plain false and purposefully crafted to mislead.
Take the case from some years ago, when a piece of fake news about Kiran Bedi gained traction, when she was named the opposition BJP candidate for Delhi chief minister. If not directly her political opponents, people who generally wanted to create an unfavourable impression about her spread the canard that Bedi was not India’s first woman police officer and that her proclamations that she was were false. Fact is, she was indeed India’s first woman police officer, but so convincing was a fake news clip that was generated, that it fooled even seasoned news watchers.
There is no universally acknowledged definition of fake news. A recent paper, ‘
The Science of Fake News’ published in the journal ‘Science’ defined fake news as “fabricated information that mimics news media content in form but not in organizational process or intent”.
Another definition was provided by Claire Wardle of First Draft, a UK-based non-profit organisation that is part of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. In an article entitled “
Fake News. It’s Complicated”, she categorised misinformation or disinformation into seven categories, namely satire or parody, misleading content, imposter content (where genuine sources are impersonated), fabricated content, false connection (where headlines, visuals or captions don’t support the content), false context (where genuine information is shared with false contextual information) and manipulated content (where genuine content is manipulated in order to deceive).
Are all forms equally problematic?
If we look at the categories spelt out, it is quite clear that they aren’t all equally harmful or malicious. It is important, therefore, to distinguish for instance between improper contextualization, which could be poor journalism, and downright false content. The key question that needs to be asked is whether there is a deliberate attempt at providing false information. Obviously, even within this, the possible consequences of the false information getting spread would make a difference to how seriously the breach ought to be viewed.
Is it a product of social media?
Fake news is by no means a new phenomenon. However, the existence of social media has some clear effects on the problem. For one, the reach of social media is so much wider than traditional forms of media that the spread of fake news (as also true news) is much greater today than in past. Secondly, while traditional media operated to fixed deadlines, like a 24-hour cycle for daily newspapers or an hourly cycle for TV news bulletins, social media is a real time medium. That makes it more likely that unverified content will get spread. Finally, unlike with traditional media where the recipient knew very clearly who the provider of the ‘news’ was, the original source can become anonymous in social media. What all of this means is that it is easier to purvey fake news today and to make it reach far in a very short while.
Shouldn’t action be taken against purveyors of fake news?
Once we accept that the term ‘fake news’ is generally understood to cover a very wide spectrum of misleading or false information, it follows that how we deal with each of these has to be different. We must make a distinction between genuine errors or incompetence on the part of journalists and clear attempts to spread falsehoods. If a person spreads wrong information unknowingly then it should not be termed fake news.
We also need to take into account the potential for harm from such ‘fake news’. Allowing governments to determine what is or is not fake news and to punish the errant journalists has obvious risks. It would become all too easy for governments to muzzle the media by using this stick as a threat. It must, therefore, be left to regulators that are autonomous of the government, whether like the Press Council of India, or the National Broadcasters Association. For sections of media that do not have such regulators, they will need to be put in place.