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Concerned about fake news, Supreme Court says social media companies only listen to powerful voices

The SC bench was hearing a petition that sought action against those responsible for disseminating fake news.

Supreme Court of India
Credit: Aditi Agrawal

“I have not come across any public channel, Twitter, Facebook or Youtube .. they never respond to us and there is no accountability, about the institutions they have written badly (about) and they don’t respond and say this is their right… They only worry about powerful men and not judges, institution or common people. that is what we have seen, “Chief Justice of India NV Ramana was quoted by Bar and Bench and news agency PTI as saying.

The Supreme Court of India was hearing a batch of petitions including one filed by Jamiat Ulema-i-Hind seeking directions to the Centre to stop the dissemination of “fake news” related to a religious gathering at the Markaz Nizamuddin and take strict action against those responsible for the fake news.

The circulation of fake news has grown tremendously and has been aided by the rise of social media which has become the primary source of news, especially in the midst of the pandemic. Social media platforms can also be used to spread vaccine disinformation in the country.

Everything shown in a section of private news channels bear a communal tone. Ultimately, this country is going to get a bad name. Did you ever attempt to regulate these private channels — SC bench headed by Chief Justice N V Ramana

What else happened in the hearing

These are the main observations made by the bench comprising Justices Surya Kant and AS Bopanna other than CJI Ramana:

  • Social media only listens to the “powerful voices” and several things are written against judges, institutions without any accountability
  • There is no control over fake news and slandering in web portals and YouTube channels. “If you go to YouTube, you will find how fake news is freely circulated and anyone can start a channel on YouTube.”

The bench also directed that the transfer petition of the several PILs challenging IT Rules in different High Courts of the country to the SC, be listed along with the Jamiat petition.

‘Platforms like Twitter and Facebook should be held responsible’

The SC bench’s observations come a few days after Supreme Court Justice DY Chandrachud said that it was important to hold governments in check and guard against falsehoods, false narratives, and fake news.

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The phenomenon of fake news is on the rise. The WHO (World Health Organization) recognized this during the COVID pandemic… calling it ‘infodemic’. Human beings have a tendency to get attracted to sensational news… which are often based on falsehoods — an NDTV report quoted Chandrachud as saying.

Chandrachud said that social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook should be held responsible for false content. However, he also urged citizens to be vigilant about the content they were consuming.

“We live in a post-truth world. Social media platforms are responsible… but citizens are also responsible. We incline towards echo chambers and don’t like opposing beliefs… we live in a world that is increasingly divided along social, economic and religious lines,” he said.

“To counter fake news we need to strengthen our public institutions. We must ensure that we have a press that is free from influence of any kind… political or economic. We need a press that will provide us information in an unbiased manner,” he added.

Six cases of fake news penalised in 2020

The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting in response to a parliamentary question said that punitive action has been initiated against fake news in six cases between 2020 and 2021 by the Press Council of India. The answer was given in response to parliamentary questions concerning fake news on social media posed.

The ministry also revealed the following details about the efforts to curb fake news by government bodies.

  • Action was taken against 12 TV channels “for telecasting false, defamatory programmes etc., in violation of Rule 6(1)(d) of the Programme Code during the years 2018-2021.”
  • A Fact Check Unit has been set up under the Press Information Bureau of this Ministry in November 2019. This unit takes cognisance of fake news, both suo moto and by way of queries sent by citizens on its portal via email and WhatsApp.
  • PIB’s Fact Check Unit has responded to over 25,000 actionable queries to date.
  • 167 cases of fake news/ misinformation have been reported to social media platforms for removal by the Election Commission. This was during the 2019 Lok Sabha Election and all Legislative Assembly Elections held after 2019.

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Among other subjects, I cover the increasing usage of emerging technologies, especially for surveillance in India

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