The wrong way to regulate disinformation

This article originally appeared in Deccan Herald.

When the Kerala Governor signed a controversial Ordinance, now withdrawn, proposing amendments to the Kerala Police Act, there was understandably a significant amount of criticism and ire directed at the state government for a provision that warranted a three-year jail term for intentionally and falsely defaming a person or a group of people. After the backlash, the state’s Chief Minister announced his intention not to implement the fresh amendment.

How not to regulate information disorder

For anyone tracking the information ecosystem and how different levels of state administration are responding to information disorder (misinformation, disinformation and malinformation) this attempted overreach is not surprising. In Kerala alone, over the last few months, we have witnessed accusations from the opposition of ‘Trump-ian’ behaviour on the part of the state administration to decry any unflattering information as ‘fake news’. Even in September, the Chief Minister had to assure people that measures to curb information disorder will not affect media freedom, after pushback against decisions to expand fact-checking initiatives beyond Covid-19 related news. In October, it was reported that over 200 cases were filed for ‘fake news’ in the preceding five months.

Of course, this is by no means limited to one state, or a particular part of the political spectrum. Across the country, there have been measures such as banning social media news platforms, notifications/warnings to WhatsApp admins, a PIL seeking Aadhaar linking to social media accounts, as well as recommendations to the Union Home Minister for ‘real-time social media monitoring’. Arrests/FIRs against journalists and private citizens for ‘fake news’ and ‘rumour-mongering’ have taken place in several states.

How to regulate information disorder?

Before proceeding to ‘the how’, it is important to consider two fundamental questions when it comes to the topic of regulating disinformation. First, should we? Four or five years ago, many people would have said no. Yet, today, many people will probably say yes. What will we say in the four or five years from now? We don’t know. 

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