As SC issues notice to Centre to check fake news, social media firms are also bringing in changes

Instagram and Facebook have started making changes to their platforms. While Instagram has said it would disable users sending hateful messages on DMs, Facebook has decided to reduce political posts
For representational purpose
For representational purpose

On Friday, the Supreme Court of India sent a notice to the Centre and social media giant Twitter on a petition seeking a method for checking contents and advertisements using fake news to spread hate and provocative messages from fake accounts.

Bhartiya Janata Party leader Vinit Goenka filed the petition stating that there are hundreds of fake social media handles/accounts in the name of noteworthy people and dignitaries. He had sought action, however, nothing happened. The BJP leader also pointed out that social media is also used for “tarnishing the image of opponents”, especially during the elections.

A Bench headed by Chief Justice of India SA Bobde sought response from the Centre and Twitter regarding the plea and also tagged similar petitions while issuing the notice. The notice comes when the tensions between the union government and the microblogging sites are high due to disagreement over suspending and banning several Twitter accounts after the Republic Day violence.

Meanwhile, according to reports, Twitter has complied with the central government’s request to ban/suspend accounts. Reportedly, Twitter has taken down over 97% of the handles. The government had asked Twitter to remove 1,435 handles. Twitter took down 1,398 accounts. According to the Union IT Ministry, these accounts are backed by Pakistan and Khalistani and share provocative content relating to the farmers' protests and carried hashtags such as #ModiPlanningFarmersGenocide, etc.

Initially, the government had ordered Twitter to ban 257 accounts and the hashtag, Twitter complied with the order but did not remove all accounts. However, after facing public backlash, Twitter restored 250 accounts linked to farmers’ protest. The social media firm earned the ire of the Centre for restoring suspended Twitter handles. The government warned the social media firm that it could face ‘penal action’ for not complying the order.

The Centre then submitted a fresh order to ban over 1,000 accounts. Twitter banned nearly 500 accounts but refused to ban others. The Centre once again warned Twitter of consequences for disobeying their order. On Wednesday evening, IT secretary Ajay Prakash Sawhney met with Twitter executives Monique Meche and Jim Baker. Following the meeting, Twitter began acting against the accounts.

Social media is a place where millions of users share their thoughts, ideas, criticisms and opinions. However, most times, hate and fake news are also shared online. Union IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad informed the Parliament that social media could be misused for wrong reasons.

“We respect social media a lot, it has empowered the common man. Social media has played a huge in the Digital India programme. However, if social media is misused to spread fake news and violence, then action will be taken on misusing of social media in India,” he said.

Prasad told the members of the Parliament that social media platforms must adhere to the Indian Constitution. “The Indian Constitution allows criticism of the government and the Prime Minister, but spreading fake news would not be allowed,” he said. Prasad also added that if social media companies want to do business in the country, then they would have to take the Indian laws and the Constitution into consideration. Prasad also pointed out that different parameters cannot be allowed for different countries. “Parameters cannot be different for the Capitol Hill incident and the Red Fort incident,” said Prasad.

Prasad makes an interesting point as Twitter and Facebook cracked down on those behind the attack on the US Capitol Hill. Twitter also permanently suspended former US President Donald Trump's Twitter account for his alleged role in inciting the mob that led to the Capitol Hill violence.

However, there is another interesting point to bring to one’s notice. When IT secretary Sawhney met with Twitter representatives, he said, “We value freedom and criticism because it is part of our democracy.” However, he added that freedom of expression is not absolute and that it is subject to reasonable restrictions as mentioned in Article 19(2) of the Indian Constitution.

The same point was made by the Union IT Minister in Parliament. It is quite ironic that the Centre “values freedom and criticism” but says freedom of expression is not absolute.

It is not just the Centre that is toughening its stance on content posted on social media, however, social media platforms are also toughening their stance. For example, Instagram has taken a tough stand against those sending hate speech/messages in the private direct messages or DMs. Instagram said it would disable the accounts of people sending hate messages to others on its platform. According to Instagram's current policy, the company prohibits a user from sending any more messages for a while if they break the rules.

In a statement released on February 10, Instagram said, “If someone continues to send violating messages, we will disable their account. Also, we will disable new accounts created to get around our messaging restrictions, and will continue to disable accounts we find that are created purely to send abusive messages.”

Even Facebook is making changes to its platforms. Since the January, social media platforms have been on the receiving end for some of the contents being posted. Most contents are in some form of way linked to politics. According to reports, Facebook is reducing the number of political posts on the user's news feed. The reason for Facebook's move is that social media users gave feedback suggesting that they would not want the social media platform used for political purposes.

For a long time, Facebook has denied moderating posts and like Twitter, is favouring the right to free speech. However, the Mark Zuckerberg-owned company had to make changes after an advertiser walkout in 2020. According to reports, only around 6% of content on Facebook is made of political posts but it has impacted user experience.

There is a lot of fake news being spread on social media both by the Left Wing and Right Wing supporters. Calling for a ban of these platforms would not eradicate fake news completely. In India, when news broke that many Union Ministers are joining Koo platform, several reports suggested that many supporters of the BJP also joined the platform. Some of these supporters ironically called for a ban on Twitter on their Twitter handles. However, it will not end the spreading of misinformation and fake news. A mechanism for tracking fake news and misinformation is important. From the looks of it, the Supreme Court has also taken cognizance of the matter. The reply from the Centre and Twitter in response to SC notice will be important.

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