Mobile and internet shutdowns in various cities are now being followed up by police departments planning to invoke the Indian Penal Code or Information Technology Act, to crack down on fake news during the ongoing anti-CAA-NRC protests. Apart from the collateral damage of blocking an essential service like the internet for all to curb mischief by a few and the impropriety of invoking the IT Act despite Section 66A having been struck down by Supreme Court, a particularly tricky question arises: Who adjudicates what is fake news?
Police say that rumours about death tolls and messages asking people to join anti-CAA protests have led to violent standoffs. For sure, rumours can be dangerous even if inviting people to protest peacefully is a constitutional right. Sifting out the mischief is challenging. Going after fake news can become a fishing expedition, to silence dissent. Efforts must instead be channelled in the direction of creating awareness, swiftly debunking rumours, allowing mainstream media to report freely, instituting a culture of fact checks, and police growing deeper roots in local communities.
A good example is IITian turned NRI banker turned IPS officer and SSP of Ayodhya Ashish Tiwari who administers 200 WhatsApp groups and used them to dispel malicious rumours during the current protests. Tiwari’s policing choice not only helped him defang fake news but would also have wisened thousands of Ayodhya citizens to this new menace. Contrast Tiwari’s approach with Singapore which just passed a law criminalising fake news. Apart from having no control over fake news with international origins, such laws suppress local critics of government. Instead, training citizens to spot fake news will mitigate the polarisation of social media and sustain the free and open internet – without the draconian surveillance being disingenuously peddled to uphold rule of law.
This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.