As India gears up for general elections, owners of global social media platforms are in a huddle over how to curb the spread of misinformation and fake news in a country where deep mobile penetration has made Facebook, its messaging service WhatsApp and Twitter available at the fingertips of millions.
Despite efforts that began with sincerity only in the later half of 2018 — including ad campaigns to collaborating with fact-checking agencies — the Indian government has now formulated new IT guidelines where social media platforms have to remove within 24 hours any unlawful content that can affect the “sovereignty and integrity of India”.
India is a lucrative market for social media firms and has the potential to grow big — with over 400 million smartphones and over 700 feature phone users — the latter being targeted by mobile manufacturers with feature-packed, entry-level devices which would help them get full access (unlike the “Lite” versions with restricted experience) to social media apps.
For Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, India is extremely important and there are lot of opportunities for him in the country. “We love the conversational nature of the society and culture. We’re really excited to make Twitter viable to more and more people in the country,” Dorsey told IANS during his India visit in November last year.
Facebook, with close to 300 million users and over 200 million users for its WhatsApp service in India, is also bullish on the future growth prospects.
According to experts, social media platforms must look at India from a fresh perspective — just like in the case of the European nations after the onset of General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in May last year — when it comes to honouring the law of the land.
“For the social media players, India is a huge market and they want to grow… On the other hand, they have consistently failed to stop the spread of fake news and propaganda on their platforms,” Pavan Duggal, the nation’s leading cyber law expert, told IANS.
The Indian government’s proposed rules, said Duggal, who is also a leading Supreme Court lawyer, is in the right direction to protect the sovereignty and integrity of the country.
“The social media companies will surely push back against any such move, so it would be interesting to see how the proposed rules are finally implemented. These firms, which have treated India and its laws very softly till now, have to change with new realities,” Duggal noted.
Prasanth Sugathan, a technology lawyer and Legal Director at Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC), however feels the new rules have gone beyond the provisions of the parent act and erodes the safe harbour protection available to intermediaries.
“The draft intermediary rules have implications for free speech rights of users with requirements for automated content removal and an array of ambiguous terms used to categorise content deemed unlawful.
“The provision for traceability could also possibly affect the privacy and security of communications,” Sugathan told IANS.
The onus, however, is clearly on the social media firms to sanitise their platforms, and fast.
Facing the uphill task of tackling election-related interference, Facebook in October said it is establishing a task force comprising “hundreds of people” in India to prevent bad actors from abusing its platform.
“With the 2019 elections coming, we are pulling together a group of specialists to work together with political parties,” said Richard Allan, Vice President of Policy for Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) during his India visit.
Facebook last month said that it will start to show a disclaimer on all political ads in India that provides more information about who’s placing the ad, and an online searchable Ad Library for anyone to access.
“Now anyone who wants to run an ad in India related to politics will need to first confirm their identity and location, and give more details about who placed the ad,” said Sarah Clark Schiff, Product Manager at Facebook.
After being pulled up by the government several times last year, WhatsApp too launched radio, TV and print ad campaigns to create awareness and empower users.
Addressing a town-hall meeting at the Indian Institute of Technology-Delhi in November, Dorsey said fake news is a way too big category, adding that the social network is taking “multi-variable” steps including the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI), to curb the spread of misleading information ahead of 2019 general elections in India.
As global executives from social media companies begin to make a beeline to the country to clarify their stands, those “multi-variable” steps now need to be elaborated further as elections inch closer.