Information & Broadcasting minister Prakash Javadekar said that fake news is worse than paid news and called for self-regulation of digital content. “The manipulation of public opinion over social media platforms has emerged as a critical threat to public life,” Javadekar said at an online event hosted by the IAMAI on Thursday.

“I am a man who believes in self-regulation. Industry bodies and digital media companies need to decide. For instance people can complaint to ASCI for complaints related to advertising. Similarly, there should be a mechanism for fake news,” he said. “Otherwise everyone will have to bear the brunt of this menace,” he added.

“Paid news is much milder than fake news. It has a potent power of disturbing peace. Fake news has caused divisive social media campaigns, separatist movements, and intensified political conflicts, There is lack of targeted legislation, media literacy, and awareness to counter fake news,” he said. Javadekar also name-dropped Singapore’s Protection of Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) and Germany tightening its laws around online platforms. India’s Information Technology Act did not envision today’s scenario and hence does not deal with the menace, Javadekar said.

Javadekar said that earlier in the Press Information Bureau, “we used to read the newspapers and follow the channels. Every evening we use to issue releases giving clarification if it was needed. Now if there is one tweet in the morning and you don’t respond immediately, then the damage is done. It happens at the speed of light, he said. “One WhatsApp message and the damage is done. One WhatsApp message can change the whole narrative. WhatsApp is not gospel truth,” he said.

Foreign investment restrictions in digital media

The Indian government’s attempt to control fake news is in part what led to it tightening rules for online platforms. In its proposed changes to safe harbour laws, the IT Ministry has tweaked rules to make internet intermediaries play a greater role in controlling what happens on their platforms, a step which can be detrimental to online free speech and privacy.

The government has more directly tried to control online news and content as well. In August 2019, the government capped the FDI that digital media could receive to 26%. There was no limitation of foreign investment previously. Even with this restriction, the government has not clarified what comes under digital media and what does not.

In July, Information & Broadcasting secretary Amit Khare said that foreign investment rules applicable to print media should also apply to news aggregators. He said there should be a level-playing field between digital platforms and print media.