With the Centre stepping up pressure on social media companies, especially messaging platform WhatsApp, to prevent circulation of fake news, Jamie Angus, director of BBC World Service Group, said on Tuesday that the phenomenon is seen mainly in regions with questionable election coverage and where there was a lack of robust independent regulators in the digital space.
Angus, who has come to India to launch a series of events on fake news and global media literacy, said sharing content on messaging platforms has proved to be a vector for poor quality news content and has become a challenge for the media industry now.
“Every country has to take a decision based on how what its existing regulatory framework is like. The fake news problem in the UK and US is not as grave but has become a political talking point. In most Western and European nations, they have relatively robust independent regulators in the digital space and well-developed and mature media industries. The most dangerous outcome of fake news is felt in regions where none of those exists,” he said in an interview with indianexpress.com.
Angus further said that the most toxic form of fake news was the one being used as a political tool to manipulate populations where there are pre-existing tensions between religious groups and race-based communities. “This kind of fake news are deliberately let out to meet political ends by governments to target societies where there is pre-existing tensions. Tech platforms that were once just a tool to connect people have now taken on the role of publishers,” he said.
Since April, fake messages about child kidnappers have gone viral on WhatsApp, prompting mobs to kill around two dozen innocent people. The victims, in most cases, are “outsiders” — people from other states in search of work – and the attacks have taken place in mostly rural areas.
The fact that the rural mobile internet penetration has grown and has touched 187 million users in the country has further compounded the problem, feels Angus. “It’s vital for a democracy that people are able to tell truth from fiction in the news they read, watch, and hear,” he said. The BBC World Services Group director was also of the view that besides being a technological issue, the incidents of lynching was also a law and order problem.
The BBC has been working to combat the issue of fake news through initiatives such as “BBC Reality Check”, a political discourse fact-checking service. In addition, BBC News has pledged to carry out daily fact-checks during India’s general election next year.
With India seeing more forwards – messages, photos, videos – than anywhere else in the world, Angus feels the tool is one of the main causes for concern. He said the end-to-end encryption feature of messaging apps was one of the main hindrances of these platforms in tracing the origin of fake news. The issue was flagged last month by IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad during his meeting with WhatsApp CEO Chris Daniels.
“Private chats are not optimised for news publication so certain sensible changes are required to enable users to get quality news content easily and at the same time de-prioritise content,” he said, adding that labelling publishers was one of the important steps taken by Google and Facebook in tackling fake news.
With only eight months left for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the need to tackle the menace of false news is more than ever before. Angus said news providers should focus more on putting out facts rather than getting consumed by the political argument.
“India needs to find its own regulatory media solutions. What works in the West may not work here. Overall, there needs to be an Indian solution to an Indian problem,” he said.