With many social media platforms used to spread disinformation, in an election year the Election Commission (EC) is not equipped to handle the challenge of fake news alone, former Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Nasim Zaidi said on Wednesday.
Opening the conversation on ‘Understanding how fake news can impact the course of elections’ at the i.e. Thinc discussion, Zaidi spoke on the inevitability of a partnership between the EC and social media platforms.
“I don’t see any harm in talking to them (social media companies) and coming up with guidelines which they should adhere to. Without partnership, it will be difficult to mitigate the impact of fake news,” he said.
Zaidi acknowledged that fake news can disrupt free and fair elections, as it can impair voters’ ability to “hear himself”, and eventually distort his vote. Zaidi also advocated self-regulation for social media platforms, the kind adopted by newspapers and news channels. “The EC, on the other hand, will have to work more with political parties and candidates, since it can regulate them and not social media,” Zaidi said.
“I think the time has come to ensure that misuse of social media is a separate chapter in the Model Code of Conduct,” he said, setting the stage for a panel discussion on disruption caused by fake news in elections, its cause, and ways to mitigate its effect.
The discussion, moderated by The Indian Express deputy editor Seema Chishti, included panelists such as former journalist and AAP leader Ashutosh; Tom Goldstein, professor at Jindal School of Journalism and Communication; and political scientist Sudha Pai.
Chandra Mani Shukla of the Indian Political Action Committee and Jency Jacob, managing editor of Boom, a fact-checking website, were also on the panel.
Goldstein cited examples of how the Donald Trump administration in the US arrogates to itself “the task of deciding what is credible, what is true, and what is news”.
He said, “One reason that Trump, and by extension other demagogues in other countries, is so effective is that he skillfully exploits the longstanding conventions that govern the media. He puts in a blatantly absurd accusation about mainstream media out there and there is no single individual or group of spokespeople of the media of equal weight to refute his charge. So his big lies remain unrebutted…. It’s not so much news falsifying reality as it is news about false things.”
He said, “We will all be better off if we dropped use of the confusing phrase ‘fake news’.”
Ashutosh said the menace of disinformation is not new, but the current crisis of fake news in the country can be traced back to 2013, when Narendra Modi was chosen as the BJP’s PM candidate. Since the last Lok Sabha polls, he said, the country has been “continuously at war”: “There is war of who can manipulate minds of the people to vote for them.”
While Jacob said the fake news narrative is no longer dominated by a party or person, or one single ideology, Pai said it’s important to look beyond the role played by political parties in exacerbating the problem. “Economic reform has affected the middle class in a way they are no longer interested in governance. This has created an atmosphere for fake news to flourish,” she said.