Everyone agrees that fake news is a deadly menace. The spread of false information, purposely crafted to mislead citizens, as opposed to genuine mistakes in news reporting or even just plain old biases, is something that all of us deal with on social media sites every day. The problem is how do we stop it. At a time when fake news rumours have even taken lives – as in the case of two young tourists from Guwahati who were beaten to death in June 2018 by an angry mob of villagers in Assam's Karbi Anglong district who mistook them to be child-lifters – the government is well within its right to mull options on how to end dangerous rumour-mongering on WhatsApp or Facebook. While asking for more "responsibility and accountability" is understandable when platforms are misused by fake news producers, trying to counter such acts with the threat of potential shutdowns of the platforms themselves may be totally counter-productive.
Such a hard-nosed focus on media companies and their liabilities – as opposed to those that produce and promote such fake news and police forces on the ground who are meant to uphold the law – means that we may end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
The IT secretary's comments this week, warning multi-national internet giants to "behave in a responsible manner" for swift action on "disturbing" content is only the most recent salvo in a series of steps encapsulating the current hardline view in New Delhi on this issue. It was preceded by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology issuing a notice on fake news to WhatsApp on 3 July, and then a second one on 19 July, as it was dissatisfied with the response. Separately, the department of telecommunications on 18 July wrote to telecom companies and industry associations reportedly asking them to "explore various possible options and confirm how Instagram/Facebook/WhatsApp/Telegram and such other mobile apps can be blocked on internet."
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