A much-publicised face-off between an Indian Internet news portal The Wire and global social media platform Meta in recent days has underscored the high political stakes associated with the soon to be framed regulatory framework for technology platforms in India.
The specific incident entailing questionable allegations of extraordinary content regulation powers bestowed by the platform on a political functionary has exposed the dark underbelly of what passes for online journalism in India.
From doctored e-mails to fabricated videos, the manner in which the online news portal ended up tying itself in knots to create evidence of what it claimed to be collusion between the big tech platform and the ruling party, has not only severely dented the credibility of the portal but also highlighted how easy it is to sway opinion with fabricated digital evidence in the absence of critical expert scrutiny.
The high political stakes in social media regulation in India also becomes apparent from the other face-off between Twitter and billionaire Elon Musk seeking to acquire the same where wild and unsubstantiated allegations were made claiming that the Indian government had embedded an agent on the platform’s payroll to access private user data.
With consistent questions being raised in India over Twitter’s neutrality as a platform, the high political stakes have also seen homegrown platforms such as Koo gain substantial visibility lately from international media.
Commenting recently on how the geopolitical world order is evolving, noted analyst Ian Bremmer highlighted how the big tech platforms have concentrated to themselves significant sovereignty and rule-making power in what he called the “global digital order”.
According to Bremmer, as the digital space is where great power competition plays itself out it is quite possible that the power of governments erodes relative to the power of tech companies, a phenomenon we are already starting to see play out.
In such a scenario, these technology platforms will likely become “the central players in 21st-century geopolitics”.
A glimpse of this is visible in the kind of reactions from journalists and technology analysts in response to the The Wire-Meta faceoff.
While most of the reactions were focused on the apparent fabrications, a common sentiment that was evident across the spectrum of reactions was against any kind of government control of social media platforms, almost bestowing upon the platforms a kind of autonomy and sovereignty in the virtual world that has no equivalence in the real world.
So strong is this latent sentiment for social media sovereignty that a recent takedown by Meta of hundreds of Facebook profiles in India evoked almost no media or social media backlash.
In fact, had there not been a BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) angle to the alleged incident of takedown of content by the platform, it is debatable if the opaque conduct of platforms would have received as much media scrutiny.
The issue of regulating social media platforms aside, the incident has also brought to the fore how fake news and false narratives have become the staple of click bait journalism, in a hypercompetitive media environment in India.
While this is not the first instance of such false narratives being published online news portals like The Wire, it was the first time that every aspect of the false reporting received intense scrutiny.
The incident also highlights how high the barriers to scrutiny are that patently false narratives can be easily passed off as facts if they are fabricated and presented in a plausible manner.
Rather than find an effective cure for this malaise of false narratives, the media industry has created a new and questionable ecosystem of fact-checking, purporting to combat fake news.
Recent incidents in India that saw an alleged fact-checker provoke a chain of hate crimes by amplifying certain selectively edited videos, raise the question of who will fact-check the fact-checkers.
In the name of combating fake news, fact-checking has become an instrument of political partisanship to selectively target individuals and institutions. With big-tech platforms certifying some of these “fact-checkers”, these partisan political outfits have acquired dubious legitimacy.
These are many of the challenges that lay ahead as India mulls an effective digital regulatory framework that seeks to balance technology innovation, independence of platforms with sovereignty of the nation, transparency and accountability of platforms to the laws of the land.
While Turkey has recently legislated jail-time for fake news, Russia has imposed large fines on tech-platforms for refusal to take down what it deemed to be fake news, in a sign of weaponising tech regulations as a response to geo-political crises.
The extensive use of digital disinformation through global social media platforms during the current conflict and in recent years during major elections is a reminder of the high political stakes transcending borders.
While fake news gets fact checked invariably either through algorithms or through individuals, the deeper malaise of false narratives built on plausible fabrications will get even harder to tackle, with the availability of sophisticated AI (artificial intelligence) tools and the ability to create deep fakes.
The Wire-Meta faceoff is an early warning indicator on how future digital regulations will have to simultaneously tackle both false narratives and opaque algorithms as social media platforms take centre-stage as the arenas for geo-political power play.
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