With elections coming up in four states, EC puts fake news on its radar

Ahead of the four-state assembly polls later this year, the election commission (EC) is working to establish a mechanism to prevent fake news from influencing poll outcomes and vitiating the atmosphere during the democratic exercise, officials aware of the development said.

According to a senior EC functionary who asked not to be named, the commission wants to put a stop to rampant circulation of news that is not authentic; motivated to instigate or create fear; or to favour a particular party.

“We are trying to build capacity to combat fake news, which is published or broadcast just before the polls. Just as social media majors have begun to use fact checkers, we are also looking at creating a process to check fake news,” the official said.

Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Mizoram and Rajasthan will pick new assemblies later this year and the EC hopes to have a mechanism in place by then.

The same mechanism can then be used in the 2019 parliamentary elections.

Fake news, especially that propagated on social media and messaging platforms, has become a significant problem around the world and is believed to have played a part in influencing the electoral process in the 2016 US presidential election and the UK Brexit vote the same year.

India has over 240 million Facebook users, over 10 million users on Twitter, and 200 million WhatsApp users. In recent months, rumours on WhatsApp and other sources have claimed the lives of at least 22 people suspected to be child-lifters.

The Indian government wrote to Facebook Inc., the owner of WhatsApp, on the problem; Facebook has responded with a list of measures it is putting in place to prevent the propagation of fake news.

The Election Commission, which conducts elections for the Lok Sabha and the state assemblies, has not signed up an external agency to help it with the task so far, but is exploring the template used by the European Commission and social media platforms such as Facebook and Google to identify fake news.

In March, a high-level expert group set up by the European Commission to check fake news and disinformation online came up with a report that suggested setting up a coalition of people from online platforms, news organisations, and civil society to fight disinformation. The report chose to use the word ‘disinformation’ instead of ‘fake news’ and said that online platforms and social networks should commit to “ensure transparency by explaining how algorithms select the news put forward”.

“The European Commission model relies on subject and tech experts to sieve through information and identify fake news. Social media companies have also begun to monitor such news, so we will look at the procedure they follow to evolve our own set-up,” the official said.

On EC’s radar is not only news that is published or broadcast through mainstream media, but also dissemination of false information, hate speeches, false stories intended to incite communal violence, or target women and minorities through platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.

“Fake news can have many consequences; such as interfering with the voters’ decision and thereby affecting the fairness of polls. The government must push tech companies to come up with mechanism to control this problem and identify the offenders; because all criminals need to be apprehended and punished no matter how difficult it is,” said former chief election commissioner SY Quraishi. At present, EC has a mechanism of observing news through the electronic media monitoring centre (EMMC) that monitors all election management related news on all news channels on the day of polling and a day prior to that.

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