Way Forward to Fix the Disinformation Problem
Third and final piece in the Hindustan Times Series
An Edited Version Published in the Hindustan Times
Public opinion is the currency of democracy, and therefore vested interests cannot be allowed to hijack public opinion through organized dissemination of misinformation. While this seems obvious, there is a morass of crosstalk and obfuscation on this issue, which makes it difficult to find a way forward. The Future of India Foundation’s report, “Politics of Disinformation” thus seeks to make two clear points: disinformation is a political problem and any way forward must be located within the bipartisan democratic political process. An attempt to seek resolution within a technocratic or solely government framework will not just be ineffective but also lack democratic legitimacy; second, the current content-moderation driven approach to disinformation by all major social media platforms is a red herring designed to distract from the far larger problem of amplified distribution of disinformation as part of platforms’ business model. Clarity and agreement on these two precepts provides a framework for the way forward.
Two interconnected recommendations - mandatory transparency and regulation - seek to bring governance of speech within the ambit of the democratic process. One of the biggest hurdles in being able to stem the flow of misinformation and understand its impact on our society and polity is lack of transparency by social media platforms. Even when platforms have disclosed certain kinds of information (e.g., the Ad Library by Facebook), the data is often not presented in a manner which facilitates easy analysis thus constraining prompt and effective response. It is thus important to bring a comprehensive transparency law to compel relevant and accessible disclosures by platforms to facilitate research and action by a wider group of stakeholders. Such a law should include safeguards for user privacy since platforms are a repository of private information of a vast section of the citizenry. Legislative initiatives, notably in the United States and Europe seek to address these issues; however, India must enact its own comprehensive transparency law to ensure parity and applicability in India.
Social media platforms are increasingly becoming the primary ground for public discourse and mobilization of public opinion. The status quo, where a handful of individuals heading technology companies have inordinate control over this discourse, lacks transparency and democratic legitimacy. Moreover, this approach is inefficient: platforms have been unable to work together to evolve a coherent framework to stop misinformation and have instead responded erratically to events and ad-hoc public pressure. Since misinformation exists within an ecosystem, the absence of a uniform baseline approach, enforcement and accountability has served to vitiate the entire information ecosystem. External regulation is thus desirable. However, bringing governance of speech under state purview is fraught with risks to free speech. It is thus proposed to constitute a statutory regulator under Parliamentary oversight. Such a regulator would have statutory powers to lay out broad processes for governance of speech, set standards for transparency for social media platforms and audit social media platforms for compliance; and advisory powers to develop a point of view on key misinformation themes/events in the country especially on issues which have immediate public policy implications e.g., public health misinformation on COVID. This advisory role should derive legitimacy from the inclusiveness and credibility of the regulator’s processes and not coercive power. Such a model will increase democratic contest by moving contested speech issues into the political sphere from the private and/or government sphere, enable considered but agile interventions in the public discourse on urgent public policy issues and facilitate greater transparency of powerful technology platforms. The Regulator should be answerable to the Parliament and not the Executive.
At the same time, structural reforms are required in platform design and treatment. Two issues in particular are notable. First, blanket immunity for platforms as “intermediaries” no longer makes sense since platforms are now far more interventionist with user content – including curation, amplification and paying for exclusive content. Amplification of user content has a significant impact on public consciousness and is an intervention in the socio-economic and political processes of the country. Therefore, platform accountability should be linked to their distribution model. In this regime, platforms would either adopt a hands-off approach to content and constrain distribution to organic reach (chronological feed); or exercise clear editorial choice and take responsibility for amplified content. Further, platforms must be compelled to default to chronological feed allowing users to make an informed choice to “opt-in” for curated feed.
Additionally, digital literacy as a way to reduce misinformation works only if done at scale. Social media platforms are at the forefront of distribution of disinformation but have limited their digital literacy initiatives to a public relations exercise. This needs increased impetus with a target for outreach linked to the platform’s user base such that a critical mass of users undergo digital literacy training in a fixed time period.
Finally, platforms must recognize and acknowledge the impact their products are having in India and the Global South. This means prioritizing investments and capacity commensurate to their impact instead of revenue, and supporting transparency and knowledge sharing initiatives here at par with what is happening in the United States and Western Europe. Similarly, Indian Government initiatives have primarily focused on controlling social media platforms through legalistic instruments and via threats of criminal liabilities. Instead the world’s largest democracy should set an example for the rest of the world by locating its regulatory efforts in the broader democratic political process and by bringing a comprehensive transparency law to force meaningful disclosures by platforms to enable a broader community of informed stakeholders.