In March, the government said in response to a parliamentary question that the IT Act was in place to ‘regulate misuse of social media’. The specific question, which Minister of State for MeitY KJ Alphons answered, asked if the government was coming up with any policy to ‘check circulation of fake news’ on social media. The government said the same thing in two Rajya Sabha answers. This position — that the IT Act is a sufficient legal safeguard against fake news — has changed in the last few months considerably.

For one, the I&B Ministry set up a committee to regulate online content in what they said was an effort to curb misinformation and fake news. While that committee’s future is uncertain at best, the government has been addressing fake news concerns on other fronts. A series of lynchings, many based on false information about subjects based on WhatsApp forwards, led the government to pull up WhatsApp on what the company is doing to stop the spread of such fake news. WhatsApp responded by putting out full-page ads on newspapers warning people not to fall for fake news, and placing restrictions on message forwarding in the app.

Fake news in the Parliament

The first mention of fake news in the parliament came in April 2017, when MP Dr Sanjay Jaiswal asked a question on WhatsApp. Specifically, he asked “whether the Government is aware of the serious implications arising due to spread of fake news via private WhatsApp networks”. That was the first time the government asserted that the IT Act was enough to curb fake news. Previously in 2016, they had stated something similar on a question relating to streaming services. It maintained this position twice in the Rajya Sabha as well.

Lok Sabha question: Unstarred 6339, Dr Sanjay Jaiswal, 12.04.2017
Lok Sabha question: Unstarred 1926, Dinesh Trivedi, 09.03.2016
Rajya Sabha question: Unstarred 1825, Derek O’Brien, 12.03.2018
Rajya Sabha question: Unstarred 3429, Anubhav Mohanty, 26.03.2018

The second instance was a question by MP PC Mohan, who wanted to know details of YouTube and Facebook URLs blocked by the government. Mohan also wanted to know if the government had taken action against any fake sites that were pretending to be official. The government said in its reply that it had blocked sites that were i) spreading fake news about the non-existent Pradhan Mantri Laptop Yojana, and ii) issuing fake appointment letters for the public broadcaster Doordarshan. The government said it had also blocked 1791 URLs in 2016 and 2017, including YouTube and Facebook links. It also blocked 2133 URLs in response to court orders (the bulk of them most likely from John Doe orders by film studios). 4694 child pornography links were blocked, the reply said. The government said that it relies on the Central Bureau of Investigation and the non-profit Internet Watch Foundation in the UK for alerts on child porn content that needs to be blocked.

Lok Sabha question: Unstarred 1535, PC Mohan, 27.12.2017

In January this year, a group of four MPs asked the I&B Ministry about what action the government was taking on fake news in print and social media. As of that month, the government said, data “regarding incidences on fake news/rumors on social media and action taken thereon are not maintained centrally and are available with security agencies of the State Governments”. It’s unclear if this has changed in the last few months. “For regulation of content on social media, Information Technology Act, 2000 has a provision for removal of objectionable online content,” the response said, adding that intermediaries are supposed to do due diligence under the IT Act. A similar social media-specific question (mentioned above) was asked in March. Again in March, the government reiterated that it does not centrally maintain fake news data.

Lok Sabha question: Unstarred 2975, Jay Prakash Narayan Yadav et al., 04.01.2018
Lok Sabha question: Unstarred 2054, Anshul Verma, 07.03.2018
Lok Sabha question: Unstarred 3237, Rajeev Shankarrao Satav et al., 15.03.2018

On Thursday, the government said in a response to a question on TV fake news that the government has enough regulations on cable TV to curb misinformation on television. The government pointed out that the Electronic Media Monitoring Centre monitors private TV channels live to detect violations of Programme and Advertising Codes. Home Minister Rajnath Singh separately stated in Parliament that, with regard to fake news, social media companies were asked by the central government to identify fake users. “Such [lynching] incidents are unfortunate,” Singh said in the Lok Sabha. “We have asked the chief ministers to take firm action against the culprits of mob violence.”

Lok Sabha question: Unstarred 385, Ravindra Vishwanath Gaikwad, et al., 19.07.2018