Sorting Democratic Fact From Fiction

Sifting through the mire of fake news, disinformation and misinformation
Misinformation, Technology, Elections and Democracy in India

The symposium “Misinformation: Technology, Elections and Democracy”, organized by the Centre for Communication Governance (CCG) at the National Law University, Delhi, sought to explore the impact of fake news on the core democratic process of elections. It also discussed journalistic, legal and technical approaches to combat the phenomenon.  The event brought together journalists, lawyers, technologists, activists and academics in a bid to understand the impact that fake news has on democracy, focusing on trends in Brazil, Germany and the United States.

The symposium commenced with a discussion and dinner with a global panel of experts: Dr. Richard Danbury (UK), Marco Konopacki (Brazil) and Professor Wolfgang Schulz (Germany). Shuchita Thapar, Program Manager for Human Rights at the Regional Office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF), served as the event moderator. This panel focused on the “weaponization” of communication and social media platforms like Whatsapp, Facebook and Twitter by both state and non-state actors to further their agenda by proliferating fake news. Prof. Schulz put out a word of caution on the future use of artificial intelligence to combat fake news stating that “…it could lead to the invisible cleaning of the internet by states… and the loss of subtleties like irony”.

The second day of the symposium began with an address by the Chief Election Commissioner of India, O.P. Rawat, who spoke publicly about the phenomenon of fake news for the first time in his tenure. He highlighted that the phenomenon has a basis in Indian myths and historical events such as the independence movement, adding that technology has become a force-multiplier for the spread of misinformation. In his words: “We should all put our heads together for an effective regulatory mechanism”.

Malavika Jayaram from the Digital Asia Hub, held a subsequent panel on the critical role of technology and platforms, highlighting some of the sweeping and far reaching approaches that the Government of India currently employs to combat the spread of fake news. This includes internet shutdowns and policy proposals that make the administrators of WhatsApp groups liable for fake news.  Of particular interest for the audience was the presence of Public Policy Manager of ShareChat, an Indian messaging platform which boasts over 30 million users in multiple Indian vernacular languages. Many of the English-speaking audience members present did not even know that such a large local language platform existed in the country!

The subsequent panel focused on the role of journalists and fact-checkers. The key takeaway that media organisations should focus on reporting the facts. If news organizations choose to make profit over reporting facts, then this will erode trust in them, disrupting a core democratic institution.

The final panel focused on activists and policy interventions and reiterated the key principles of the internet as a free space that has “democratized information and also misinformation” as per the words of Nikhil Pahwa of MediaNama.

The event concluded with a consensus that fake news and misinformation are a multi-faceted issue based in culture, law and technology. Addressing it requires a concerted multi-stakeholder effort over the coming years.