By now, most social media groups would have got an advisory from an entity called the Cyber Crime Portal of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). The advisory states how social media groups and their members should function during the Covid-19 outbreak. It lists five unverified messages related to the pandemic that must not be circulated. It also lists the legal provisions under which action can be taken against such violations, and provides a link to a form to report unverified postings and forwards.

This ‘advisory’ is a representative of what’s going on: it is not issued by the MHA or any of its divisions and is one of the many ‘fake news’ that has been flooding social media platforms with the outbreak of Covid-19. The only official note that went out — an advisory to social media intermediaries on curbing false news and misinformation about coronavirus — was issued by the Ministry of Electronics and IT on March 20.

Spreading confusion

Ever since the coronavirus outbreak was first reported in Wuhan, China, social media platforms have been flooded with posts on the disease. Beginning February, when awareness about the disease rose in India, social media platforms have seen numerous posts on Covid-19 — ranging from information on the outbreak to false news about its origin and spread to offering untested treatment for the disease, and also prescribing strange diets.

Now, with a 21-day lockdown being enforced across the country, such misleading posts not only amplify the menace of fake news, creating panic and frustration, but also result in privacy violations as medical records of tested individuals are being willfully circulated online. In a few cases, false medical reports have also been generated for random individuals and then people are suspecting them of having the diseases and socially boycotting them.

Such overflow of content makes it difficult for the people to sift real news from the fakes. It also obscures the well-timed approach by the Modi government, where it uses technology and social media along with broadcast media to update the people on the prevalence and spread of the disease, especially on the precautions to be taken along with the right health and hygiene habits.

Despite the warnings and concerns, many vicious minds continue to create and spread fake posts. A larger section forwards them across groups, often out of ignorance or the excitement of becoming a ‘news breaker’. In this context, we need a much wider awareness exercise, involving all stakeholders, to make every section of the society aware of the laws and regulations as well as the harmful effects of fake posts.

Greater responsibility

Social media operators should also take a more responsible role. Under the IT Act and the rules notified in April 2011 for social media intermediaries, their liability didn’t arise if they were not responsible for the inception, transmission and reception of content via their networks. With the experience over a decade with this status quo, it is very clear that they need to be made to take more proactive steps and not wait for the law enforcement or judicial references to remove fake content off their platforms or block those senders.

To a great extent, this would have been possible if the revised guidelines for intermediaries would have been notified by now, as the expanded provisions therein, as circulated earlier, factored a closer responsibility from the intermediaries. Even the revision of the decade-old amended IT Act would have covered the intermediaries’ role closely considering the technology enablement since the last revision.

In turn, law enforcement agencies need to take action against fake-content generators and transmitters and for that, their capacity has to be widely expanded both in terms of numbers and quality. Some State police forces made arrests recently, but there is a wider need also to look at the existing laws to directly address fake news.

A big section of the digital society would have vouched for an industry-wide self-censorship and weeding regime. In mid-February, such an attempt was announced by a few of the major intermediaries operating in India, such as Facebook and Google, about forming an Information Trust Alliance (ITA) to weed out fake content. This is the time to shape it further and give it more substance and teeth. The fake news flow around Covid-19 gives them more reasons to be seen to be more responsible. They need to expand their network of fact-checkers, which these intermediaries employ individually, till they come with an optimal arrangement.

Privacy is paramount

As for privacy violations, the Personal Data Protection Bill 2019 (PDPB) is likely to be taken up in the monsoon session of Parliament if the select committee can complete its task. However, it may be mentioned that in August 2018 the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) had released a draft ‘charter of patient rights’ which had factored in the privacy of medical records of patients.

This was just after MoHFW had drafted the ‘Digital Information Security in Healthcare Act’ (DISHA) and offered it for public comments in March 2018. DISHA was intended to specifically look at the data privacy and confidentiality of digital health data. However, DISHA was subsumed under the PDPB, which is intended to be an encompassing legislation around privacy covering every ministry and situation. It is pertinent to mention here that medical records would be a ‘sensitive personal data’ under PDPB as it is today as defined under the Rules notified under the IT Act in April 2011, and such data cannot be circulated without the explicit permission of the provider.

To sum up, India has laws and rules to deal with fake news and sensitive personal data circulation online. Efforts are being made to enhance their scope and make them more effective. The IT Act and the rules around the Act have an expansive scope to factor in many situations of violations. In the current situation, there is the additional advantage of the provisions of Section 54 of the Disaster Management Act 2005 (DMA) — which deals with false warnings around a disaster leading to panic.

The circular of the MHA also mentions the applicability of Sections 505 and 188 of the Indian Penal Code and Section 3 of the Epidemic Disease Act 1897. Using these provisions, several people have been arrested across States. However, these actions still can’t match the pace at which people post and forward fake posts and violate privacy. The need of the hour is a cocktail of stricter law enforcement as well as an awareness drive through constant messaging and foster and inculcate cyber manners.

The writer is a former country head of a defence multinational