Karnataka’s fact-checking initiative: Will it shield democracy or stifle free speech?

The government’s intentions may be aimed at curbing fake news, but the move could potentially grant the state the authority to dictate the truth.

Published : Aug 31, 2023 12:24 IST - 8 MINS READ

Chief Minister Siddaramaiah with Minister for Information Technology Priyank Kharge at the meeting on cyber security on August 21 in Bengaluru.

Chief Minister Siddaramaiah with Minister for Information Technology Priyank Kharge at the meeting on cyber security on August 21 in Bengaluru. | Photo Credit: Twitter

In a move aimed at tackling the surge of misinformation in Karnataka, the State government has decided to set up a fact-checking unit (FCU) under the Home Department. Chief Minister Siddaramaiah gave his assent for this on August 21 after a meeting on cyber security with Priyank Kharge, the Minister for Information Technology (IT), at which senior police officials were also present.

Speaking after the meeting, Siddaramaiah said: “Fake news is a threat to democracy and has been the cause for social polarisation. We need to take strict measures to control this menace.” He added that the IT Department would help the Home Department initially to set up the mechanism for this after which the Karnataka State Police would manage its implementation.

In an earlier statement in June when discussions commenced in Vidhana Soudha on the issue, Siddaramaiah had said that the quantum of fake news increased every time the Congress came to power in Karnataka and that “chances are high that fake news will be created to disrupt peace with the nearing of the Lok Sabha elections”. He made this statement at the time when a police complaint was filed against BJP IT Cell chief, Amit Malviya, in Bengaluru after he had shared an animated video of Rahul Gandhi allying with “anti-national forces”.

Home Minister G. Parameshwara, who has been part of these deliberations over the past two months, also stated in June that the government would take all measures “including the use of technology like Artificial Intelligence to take cases to the logical end.”

Kharge also posted on X (formerly Twitter): “The BJP IT Cell and their functionaries may have the blessing of their supreme leaders to spread hatred, but we have the blessings of the Constitution and the people to stop them.”

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While it is clear that the Congress wants to level the field as far as social media is concerned and has chosen aggressive methods to target fake news propagated by the BJP, its affiliates, and the wider ecosystem of the Hindu right wing, there are concerns on the wider ramifications of this move as it could clamp down on individual freedom of expression and also allow the state to intimidate independent media operators.

Speaking to Frontline, Joint Commissioner of Police (Crime), Dr S.D. Sharanappa, explained: “There are lots of provocative posts on social media with the potential to cause disharmony because of which monitoring of social media is important and instructions have been given to the police department at all levels to closely track social media.” He added that training had been imparted to policemen who were tech-savvy.

The FCU, which was activated from mid-July onwards, has already arrested persons in two instances so far: the first case involved the hacking of the website of the Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee while the second case was that of miscreants creating a fake Bengaluru Police handle on Instagram.

When asked to explain what he meant by the term “provocative”, Sharanappa said: “Anything that deviates and causes disharmony.” One example that he gave at least thrice during this conversation was that of a caricature denigrating Prophet Muhammad that was shared on Facebook leading to riots in D.J. Halli in Bengaluru in 2020 in which three people died.

Potential for misuse

While the move may be well-intentioned, there are problems when the state (whether the PIB [Press Information Bureau] which handles communications for the Union government or units at the State-level) gets involved in the business of fact-checking. In January, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology proposed amendments to the IT Rules, 2021, which, if implemented, would mean that social media posts and even news stories would have to be blocked or taken down if the PIB deemed these as “fake news”. The fear with this move is that it could potentially be misused and constitute the fledgling steps towards censorship of the internet in India as practiced in countries like China.

This concern was also pointed out by the Editor’s Guild of India (EGI), which has already filed a petition in the Bombay High Court challenging the amendment to the IT Rules. In a statement issued on August 27 responding to Karnataka’s move to set up an FCU, the EGI stated: “While admittedly there is a problem of misinformation and fake news, especially in the online space, efforts to check such content have to be by independent bodies that are not under the sole purview of the government, lest they become tools to clamp down on voices of dissent…Such units should also be set up with due consultation and involvement of all stakeholders, including journalists and media bodies, so that press freedom is not tampered with.”

The editor of a prominent fact-checking website who spoke to Frontline on the condition of anonymity also disagreed vehemently with this move by the Karnataka government. He said: “There were reports in regional Kannada media that Priyank [Kharge] would reach out to established fact-checking websites but as someone who is part of one of these websites, whenever any politician or political party says they are coming out with something to do with fact-checking, we stay miles away from it. This is simply because a government or political party cannot be a fact-checker as there is obviously a conflict of interest. Unless they fact-check themselves, they cannot qualify as fact-checkers. Our concern is that this might end up becoming a witch hunt of political rivals.”

The editor added that since this is being done in a Congress-ruled state, “they will only target the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and it is not like the Congress does not put out fake news although they do it on a much smaller scale than the BJP. If they really want to do this, let them not call it an FCU, what is stopping the Karnataka government from providing clarifications?”

These concerns become significant when one looks at two events that preceded Siddaramaiah’s statement on August 21. In July, a letter allegedly written by a disgruntled Congress MLA made its way into public circulation claiming that Cabinet Ministers were seeking money; and in early August, a letter was sent to the Governor of Karnataka accusing Agriculture Minister N. Cheluvarayaswamy of seeking bribes. While these letters have not emphatically proven to be fake so far, the Congress was quick to denounce them as such. Thus, the question needs to be asked as to whether the FCU could become a tool to clamp down on such revelations as well.

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Swathi Shivanand, a researcher who co-authored a report titled The Wages of Hate: Journalism in Dark Times which looked at the role played by Kannada media during the COVID pandemic by falsely targeting the Muslim community, said: “Fact-checking is an integral part of journalism and should not be left to the whims and fancies of the government of the day whose efforts are better directed towards strengthening existing mechanisms to counter hate speech, misinformation and fake news.” Shivanand is part of a group called the Campaign Against Hate Speech which works on combating hate speech by tediously seeking punitive action against media houses for false and biased reportage, but as she said, their triumphs have been “few and far between.”

The point that Shivanand was making and which was reiterated by a former member of the Press Council of India (PCI) who spoke to Frontline on the condition of anonymity was this: If the mainstream media did real journalism (and countering fake news is also part of this mandate) rather than become tools for government propaganda, then there would not be any need for independent fact-checkers.

“We (mainstream journalism) have become emasculated, completely toothless,” said a former member of the PCI. “That’s where fact-checkers such as Boom Live and Alt News come in.” They have become crucial because they are doing the journalism that, ideally, journalists in mainstream media should be doing,” he said, adding that he was “against the move by the Karnataka government to set up a unit to check fake news”.

According to the journalist, the PIB had set up a fact-checking unit in 2019 and it was opposed on three grounds. First, the PIB is basically a megaphone for the government to disseminate its policies. Next, “do they have the expertise to detect fake news?” and, finally, “is it the business of the PIB to check fake news?”

“If you see the way the PIB unit operates, they just randomly identify something as ‘fake’ because it does not suit the government,” he said. “They don’t know the difference between an editorial error and fabricated news.” The basic point is, whether it is the PIB doing this in Delhi or some unit in Karnataka, this is fundamentally wrong as the State alone becomes the purveyor and arbiter of truth, warned the veteran journalist. “It may be a well-intentioned move, but it has many holes.”

Taking cognisance of the concern by the EGI, Kharge posted on X on August 29 that “the establishment of this unit is in no way an attempt to impinge upon the freedom of the press”, but this hardly allays the serious concerns of this move where the government arrogates to itself the power to fact-check the media or social media.

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