Times of India’s Edit Page team comprises senior journalists with wide-ranging interests who debate and opine on the news and issues of the day.
The carnage at the US Capitol building has retriggered debate on the role of social media in providing a platform to disseminate false information that finally culminates in violence. A fallout of the widespread outrage about the event was that President Donald Trump was locked out of his social media accounts for instigation. Twitter and YouTube have served serious warnings about permanent removal while Facebook and Instagram have frozen his accounts. The space for free expression in democracies is influenced by local context. But where everyone draws a line is when it descends into instigation of violence.
Social media companies have taken some steps to curb the dissemination of fake news. These are very inadequate and nobody can miss that serious action against Trump is coming only at the end of his term. Algorithms continue to push lies and hatred. But with American democracy coming under grave threat this week, there is a much stronger case now for ushering in a sophisticated regulatory mechanism to oversee dissemination of information on social media, without restricting the benefits these platforms provide. Social media should not continue to roam free of accountability and the compliances that are rightly mandatory for traditional media like newspapers.
These are issues that must be debated in Parliament, which is in the process of crafting a personal data protection bill. Of course in India the default approach to maintaining public order in the age of social media is to shut down the internet. This imposes huge social and economic costs – $2.8 billion in 2020 according to a UK research firm. Moreover, an internet shutdown is antithetical to the government’s Digital India policy. We therefore need a more sophisticated approach to regulating social media companies and checking their spread of fake news.
This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.