MisDisMal-Information #5 – This Week In Information Disorder Letter

This newsletter is published at techpolicy.substack.com

Of Bots, Moral Panics, Plandemics, Content Moderation and more

What is this?This newsletter aims to track information disorder largely from an Indian perspective. It will also look at some global campaigns and research
What this is not?A fact-check newsletter. There are organisations like Altnews, Boomlive etc who already do some great work. It may feature some of their fact-checks periodically

Welcome to Edition #5 of MisDisMal-Information.

Throwing the book at a tough problem won’t solve it

Maneesh Chhibber writes in ThePrint that “Twitter, Facebook profited a lot from India’s hate agenda. Time to pull the plug with a law.”

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the French parliament has passed a law that makes it mandatory for social media and technology companies such as Twitter, Facebook, and Google to remove hateful content within 24 hours of being flagged by users. If the content pertains to terrorism and child pornography, it must be removed “within one hour”. Failure to comply could end in these companies facing fines of up to $1.36 million. It is time India does something similar. I suggest this knowing fully well that such a law is prone to misuse. Governments in India could use it to throttle free speech, censor unfavourable content, and stifle rightful dissent. At the very least, most law enforcement agencies have stopped functioning independently and now work instead like an extension of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is in power at the Centre and in many states.

I certainly understand where this comes from. It is hard to be comfortable with the amount of power that these private players have amassed. One of the suggestions was to weed out anonymous accounts. Incidentally, a BJP member has also petitioned the Supreme Court because of the ‘seditious content’ on social media. This plea also asked for a KYC of all social media handles. Now, you’ll probably recall that the current version of the Draft Personal Data Protection also referenced ‘voluntary’ social media verification. And while this may sound like a good idea in theory, as with most things, it will first disproportionately impact vulnerable people first. Don’t take my word for it (you should never do that), listen to this episodefeaturing Danielle Citron on Feminism and National Security where she touches on this aspect.

We shouldn’t moral panic ourselves into a situation that we cannot get out of. Because we know states will not easily concede powers they acquire (Why would they?). ForeignPolicy has a round up on how this is being used to silence critics in SE-Asia. Actions speak louder than words goes the cliche, with that in mind read about the case of this PIB Fact Check.

Order, Order!

Since we’re on the subject of courts. The Delhi HC “issued notice to social media platforms to remove illegal groups for the safety and security of children in cyberspace”. The next hearing is scheduled for mid-July. Keep an eye on this case.

Let’s talk about TikTok

As I alluded to earlier in this edition, a lot of disturbing content has indeed surfaced on TikTok. To the extent that the chairperson of NCW stated her preference that the platform be banned. Let’s put this in context. Sure, the platform could do more but disturbing content is not just a TikTok problem. Just look at any Twitter trend for more than 5 comments, or for that matter the comments section on TOI, or YouTube, or Facebook, or Instagram, or Reddit. Banning any or all of these isn’t going to fix that (nor is it going to count for revenge against China as many tweets suggest). I apologise for being extra sermon-y in this edition, but this a problem that goes deeper than just one platform. And wider than just one country. Shubhangi Mishra points out that it is harder to change culture in schools than it is to lower TikTok’s rating on the play store.

Go here for the complete edition