The Government of India (GoI) submitted its affidavit to the Bombay High Court stating that false and misleading information can adversely impact electoral democracy while opposing Kunal Kamra’s plea challenging recent amendments to the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 (IT Rules 2021).
The GoI filed the affidavit through the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) stating that the false and misleading information has the potential to fan separatist movements, intensify social and political conflicts and weaken public trust in democratic institutions.
The GoI’s affidavit states, “False and misleading information can adversely impact electoral democracy, the economy and the social fabric in many ways, with severe and lasting damage. It has the potential to fan separatist movements and intensify social and political conflict, while also weakening public trust in democratic institutions. In matters of public interest, misleading content on social media platforms influences citizens’ perceptions regarding reality and creates doubts regarding the actions and intentions of the democratically elected government.”
Kunal Kamra filed a plea against the amendment to IT Rules 2021 allowing the MeitY to notify a fact-checking body and empowering them to tag false or fake online news regarding the GoI’s activities. He sought to declare the impugned rule to be ultra vires to section 79 of the Information Technology Act and Article 14, 19(1)(a) and 19(1)(g) of the Constitution of India.
Common Users Generating Information on Social Media
The GoI’s affidavit states that social media platforms have turned users into news producers and that the functions performed by traditional information vehicles, such as news organisations, have been diluted with the emergence of user-generated content.
“With access to smart-phones, cheap internet data and a social media account, users can not only have formation related to their personal experiences, activities, beliefs and opinions but also information related to various factual matters related to the functioning of the democratic governments, thereby adversely impacting democratic discourse,” the affidavit reads.
Furthermore, the affidavit highlights that the common users producing content over social media platforms do not possess the means to verify the information. It also states that anti-India organisations are using this aspect of social media to push false information.
“This implies that the majority of the news-related information consumed on social media across major social media platforms in India is produced by common users who may not possess the capabilities, resources and time to verify the information before publishing… while a common user may not have the available time and resources to verify the information, anti-social and anti-India actors/organizations have been using this feature of social media to deliberately publish and amplify false information,” the affidavit adds.
Furthermore, the GoI has reiterated that the role of the fact-checking unit will be restricted to curbing false and misleading information about GoI’s business. “The role of fact check unit is not for any opinion, satire or artistic impression. The aim of the government with regard to the introduction of the impugned provision is explicitly clear and suffers from no purported arbitrariness or unreasonableness as Kamra has alleged,” the affidavit read.
Fact-Check in Public Interest
The GoI said that there is an apprehension of one-sided information being spread over social media, which might cause citizens to act on it, without or before an official announcement.
The GoI submitted, “In such matters, the relevant facts are authentically and readily available with the government itself. It would be in the public interest that such authentic information is readily ascertained and publicly disseminated after fact-checking by a government agency so that the potential harm to the public at large can be contained. The scope of such fact-checking will be limited to ascertaining authentic information related to the activities of the government of India.”
The affidavit highlights that emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, could be used to prepare and spread motivated or planted stories amongst the population with ease. Therefore, the GoI has made amendments in the larger public interest for an evidence-based fact-checking system.
“The impugned rule has been made in the larger public interest. It provides for a system of evidence-based-fact-checking, in order to have in place a mechanism to deal with fake or false or misleading information of a kind that have in the past on viral and resulted in riots, mob lynching and other heinous crimes, including those concerning the dignity of women and sexual abuse of children” the Ministry underscored.
The affidavit cited fake and misleading information that was spread during the implementation of GoI’s Agnipath Scheme for recruitment in the Indian Armed Forces which led to violent protests and the destruction of public property. It mentioned the fake information claiming that the Cabinet Committee has decided to remove Sikhs from Indian Army.
Furthermore, it mentioned another false information spread through a YouTube channel regarding the President approving a ban on Electoral Voting Machines (EVMs). “It would be appropriate that a mechanism to address such information be viewed not as being in conflict with the fundamental rights but as being in harmony with the other fundamental rights, and in the public interest,” the affidavit stated.