The LexGaze Weekly - WE THE PEOPLE

Government’s exercise of upper hand in controlling and regulating exchange of government-concerning content over social media: a required move?

Tejas Sateesha Hinder

Issue 4 | July 11, 2020

With the increased exchange in number of false/fake messages, potential hate creating content, and content mocking and defaming the government, it becomes imperative to look into the need and extent to which such content ought to be regulated, by ensuring no violation of the right to freedom of speech and expression, and at the same time assuring no miscommunication made to people.

Let’s first look at why it ought to be done. Memes on political leaders, mimicking them through satirical content, messages indicating false statistics with regard to serious issues such as the current COVID-19 Cases, the total number of tests conducted, which are integral to depict efficiency of the government and governmental institutions, and messages manipulating and misinterpreting a political leader’s or MP’s stance on a pressing issue, when exchanged and spread to the masses, become capable of creating distrust, and in the worst extent inciting hatred in the minds of the people for the government, be it Central or State. This distrust created can push people into not believing in the Government, and hence take stances against the government, and this in-turn, once pushed across for the masses, would lead to the downfall of the democratic setup in the country, as a result of what can be construed as a misuse of the freedom of speech and expression. In the worst cases, when the content forwarded to masses may be capable of inciting hatred in the minds of the people, it really becomes difficult in following the law, and tracking down the individual who propagated such a spread of misinformation, and ultimately punish him/her under The Information Technology Act, as not only has the misinformation seeped across and triggered individuals, but also, may be viewed by many uninformed citizens as an arbitrary view by the government to curtail criticisms to it as an institution. What also needs to be understood here is that such a response cannot be avoided rightfully through the spread of the right information, as the same is looked upon as a justification and attempt to curb a wrong, something that is happening in the Status Quo. Further, incorrect updates on essential statistics may, if manipulated for the worse, lead to unnecessary backlashes and comments against the government, which cannot be mitigated through mechanisms like Trashing over Social Media, and at the same time, if it is manipulated for a seemingly better situation, and the same doesn’t get fulfilled, the mechanism of calling out the government gets used for criticizing the government for unnecessarily propagating the wrong information to garner public support. Lastly in this regard, hate speeches in the long run may lead to severe unwanted uprisings against the government, which prove difficult for a democracy to function, as the opposition is much more than a pressure or interest group.

Coming to why it shouldn’t be done, it becomes important to understand here that the right to freedom of speech and expression exists as a fundamental right, and criticising the government or moves of the government through preferred inferences and interpretations is an exercise of such right. In addition to this, a governmental vigil over content regulated on social media would mean a scan through messages or posts extremely personal in nature, which is a prima facie infringement of the Right to Privacy of an individual, as it is the ultimate discretion of the individual to choose what he/she shares, and with whom the same is shared. A third party should not look into or view such privileged communication. Moreover, the aforesaid inferences and interpretations help in constructive analysis of moves and actions of the government, and give them an indication of what is to be done further. As far as satires and satirical content goes, it is again a means of representing dislike or disagreement over certain actions of the government, and the light in which the institution is being viewed due to an action or inaction is communicated thorough such a means. It is again merely a means of expression, and is not ideally what is to me construed or misconstrued in a wrongful manner. Without providing the freedom to express dissatisfaction or disagreement, the essence of a fundamental right is destroyed. As per the fake reports and misleading statistics go, the government has a calling out mechanism in place, to always call forward the right thinking people of the country and indicate the same, who are likely to comprehend and buy into the government’s call out, rather than the misinformation communicated, and suppression of opposition, protesting on the basis of misinformation wouldn’t then be considered an arbitrary move, and hence not lead to any further substantial effects on the democratic setup in place.

On a concluding note, understanding the existence of freedom of speech and expression, and at the same time, the harms posed by such misinformation, it becomes imperative to get in place, a fair mechanism. With social media platforms already having in place, regulations in place to monitor and filter content, the government may, seek to add on to it, a clearly substantiated criteria for filtering content capable of affecting the government’s reputation , which include identification of content that does not involve constructive criticism, but instead meaninglessly aims to tarnish the image of the government, without any substantive or logical backing, and/or miscommunicates information about essential aspects, which depict the efficiency of the government, before the people. The final call for filtering shall lie with the social media platform, so as to ensure no arbitrary misuse of power to censor constructive criticism to hold a government accountable, and at the same time, the mechanism to make representations to the social media platform for ‘inappropriate’ content shall continue to exist.