Government’s solution to fake news menace is to shoot the WhatsApp messenger: But will it help?

Mobile users, Airtel

Govt seeks input from Telecom and internet providers on ways to block WA, FB. Credit: The Peninsula Qatar

By Prarthana Mitra

In a bid to clamp down hard on the recent spate of mob lynchings, triggered by fake online news, the government is looking for ways to block online media outlets like Facebook and WhatsApp, in a country where they have over 200 million users.

On the authoritarian move

The announcement, first reported by Reuters, has sparked mass outrage, as blocking media is only permissible during a state of emergency.  Lawyer Pavan Duggal told Mint, “The government is trying to deal with a 21st century challenge with a 19th century mindset.” This sort of a ban is not only tantamount to violation of the fundamental right of speech and expression, but it also disrupts life that has become heavily dependent on such online services.

Primarily, it raises questions about how such a misguided approach towards combating the social menace is even being considered.

While Facebook-backed WhatsApp has been held accountable for being used to blatantly monger hate speech, inflammatory reports and doctored news, the government ought to be working together with these media organisations to nab the real rabble-rousers.

Striking at the roots of this paranoia and those perpetuating it requires strong leadership down to the local level, and understanding why the mob is resorting to vigilante justice and violence so frequently. WhatsApp is already trying several features from their end, like limiting and labelling forwarded messages and marking suspicious content. But the government, dissatisfied and eager to shift the blame, has directed the platform to further intensify their efforts.

What we know so far

As mob lynching stoked by such WhatsApp forwards show no sign of abatement, the department of Telecommunications (DoT) in July asked Telecom operators and internet providers including Bharti Airtel Ltd, Reliance Jio Infocomm Ltd, Vodafone India Ltd, Idea cellular Ltd and Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd, to “explore various possible options” to block such apps.

“You are … requested to explore various possible options and confirm how the Instagram/Facebook/Whatsapp/Telegram and such other mobile apps can be blocked on internet,” read the government letter dated July 18. None of the above named have responded to queries by the media.

A source at the DoT who did not wish to be named told Reuters that it was seeking consultation in the event of a national emergency. Acknowledging the difficulty in enforcing such a ban in this day and age, the official source noted, “There is a need for a reasonable good solution to protect national security.”

Under the present framework, instructions for banning online media sites are issued by the DoT to internet service licensees. They are based on the directions of Meity and must be ratified by relevant courts.

The letter comes to light within weeks of the federal police launching a probe into Cambridge Analytica’s misuse of Facebook user data, which may have involved information on Indian users.

Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius.


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