Earlier this month, Justice Ravindra Bhat, a Supreme Court judge, said that there was a need to classify social media platforms as news media and subject them to the same journalistic standards, according to a report in the Hindustan Times. He said that doing so would help curb the dissemination of fake news. “People source news from social media,” Bhat said, while delivering the sixth Justice VR Krishna Iyer Memorial Lecture. “By itself, it is not bad. But news disseminated (on these platforms) is not factual…Fake news and planting bots have triggered riots that leads to public mischief.”
Indeed, there is more than a grain of worry in Justice Bhat’s remarks. Multiple studies have shown that the spread of misinformation via social media platforms have had fatal consequences. However, the notion that subjecting such platforms to the norms of journalism will help counter fake news is a misplaced one. By definition, platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are intermediaries. In other words, unlike news media organisations, they don’t create their own content. Users use social media to publish thoughts they’d like to share with others and these platforms give them the space to do so. More importantly, those who publish regularly are not a homogenous entity. They could be entrepreneurs, movie stars, scientists, doctors, lawyers, students and even organisations.
To treat the content published by these aforementioned categories at par with journalism would be a fallacy. That’s because there is a process and architecture to news publishing. Reporters go out into the field, interview people, do background research and file their stories. Editors then work on these pieces, weed out errors, cross-check facts and then, thanks to the wonders of the internet, publish them on social media. In other words, social media for journalists is like TV or newspapers or websites – a medium for spreading information in public interest. On the other hand, when non-journalists use social media they are merely putting out their thoughts, promoting a movie, posting a job opening or launching a product/service.
There are two additional reasons why the normative standards that apply to journalism, should not be applied on all social media. First, there’s an assumption that these standards are set in stone and govern the newsgathering and publishing process. Nothing can be farther from the truth. Media organisations in India develop their own processes to disseminate the news, inspired by the best practices of their international contemporaries. Self-regulatory bodies like the Press Council India have laid down a code of ethics for journalists to follow but one that appeals to their inner voice. “The sanction behind code of ethics is moral; the source of their motive-force is within the conscience of the media person concerned,” wrote Justice GN Ray, in his introduction to the 2010 edition of the Code.
Second, the underlying assumption in Justice Bhat’s argument is that fake news is absent from journalism. Again, facts tell a different story. In India, multiple stories have emerged of ‘news’ organisations peddling misinformation. Even in the US, websites such as BreitBart have been routinely called out for putting out false news. In both instances, what is clear is that individuals and organisations, claiming to practice journalism, have disregarded the basic tenet of the profession: facts are sacred.
As Justice Bhat has correctly said, fake news and misinformation do pose a public threat. However, it is for social media platforms to themselves come up with ways to tackle this menace. If they fail to do so, mechanisms should be in place to mandate such responsibility. The European Union’s recently notified data usage rules, house under the 2002 Privacy and Electronic Communications Directive, are a good example. These rules aim to enshrine transparency within social media platforms, when it comes to content moderation. India should also to create a similar framework that places proportionally higher obligations of transparency, vis-à-vis content moderation practices, on platforms. Like in Europe, such a mechanism will help ensure that social media platforms act against fake news and create a cleaner digital universe. Most importantly, it’ll be a much more effective instrument against disinformation, than imposing the standards of one profession on all social media.
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