An antidote to virtual toxicity

A regulatory framework that balances free speech and accountability is one of the hallmarks of a mature democracy. In this context, the latest recommendations by the European Commission (EC) to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions to tackle online disinformation is a fine document that refrains from any overreach that would undermine free expression. It assumes significance in the light of the latest study on press freedom by Reporters Without Borders in which India is placed at a low 138 out of 180 countries. The report says: “With Hindu nationalists trying to purge all manifestations of ‘anti-national’ thought from the national debate, self-censorship is growing in the mainstream media and journalists are increasingly the targets of online smear campaigns by the most radical nationalists, who vilify them and even threaten physical reprisals.”

Present news ecology

In India, the present information ecology is vitiated by many factors: undue pressure on mainstream news organisations and journalists, strategic deployment of trolls, planting suspicion regarding legitimate reports by indulging in whataboutery, and amplifying disinformation through social media networks. Whenever the issue reaches a tipping point, the government comes up with restrictive mechanisms which not only fail to curb the spread of disinformation but end up hurting the dissenting voices more, like the now-repealed Section 66A of the Information Technology Act. India is also one of the few countries where defamation is both a civil and a criminal offence.

How did Europe manage to deal with this issue without taking away the rights of citizens? What were the parameters used by the technical team that worked on this subject? I met a member of the team, Rasmus Nielsen, Director of Research at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and Professor of Political Communication at the University of Oxford, to understand the team’s approach. He listed out some of the basic tenets that the team used to formulate its response. The first was to not give power to either governments or private companies to manage political debate. Second, the three most harmful contents — child pornography, hate speech and incitement of violence — are dealt with by existing laws and it is a question of political will to implement the laws. There is no need to create new laws. The third was the question of process: is there substantial qualitative judgment about what is desirable, good, and of poor taste? “In a diverse society, to have prescriptive and categorical ideas about these issues is not desirable. We need to have space for voices that are not desirable for many and yet not illegal. One of the good ideas of the EU approach was not to rush for a restrictive regulation but try to understand the digital environment first. It is amazing how little we know about the digital world and yet we want to come up with rules to regulate this space. The biggest challenge was to deal with the opacity of technology companies,” he said.

The EC notes that “given the complexity of the matter and the fast pace of developments in the digital environment, the Commission considers that any policy response should be comprehensive, continuously assess the phenomenon of disinformation, and adjust policy objectives in light of its evolution. There should be no expectation that a single solution could address all challenges.”

Role of platform companies

The business model of platform companies, which collect data for monetisation, is central to the crisis. Hence, the EC recommendation focusses more on the role of platform companies. It demands a more transparent, trustworthy and accountable online ecosystem in which “it is necessary to promote adequate changes in platforms’ conduct, a more accountable information ecosystem, enhanced fact-checking capabilities and collective knowledge on disinformation, and the use of new technologies to improve the way information is produced and disseminated online.”

One of the areas where the EC communication makes a breakthrough is to come up with protocols that harness technologies across platforms “to play a central role in tackling disinformation over the longer term”. Central to this idea is “to invest in high-quality journalism”. In other words, it says that good journalism is the antidote to a toxic virtual space.

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Printable version | Sep 20, 2021 1:11:18 PM |

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