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Is It Time For India To Penalize Misinformation On Social Media?

In today's society, social media has become an indispensable part of our lives; we don't just use it to keep in touch with our friends and family; we don't just use it to share brief glimpses of our everyday lives or to notify people of our joys and sorrows. Businesses, news outlets, politicians, celebrities, and other influencers now dominate the social media landscape, each attempting to reach out to as many people as possible for their own cause.

While having everything connected on one platform may create the impression that we are more united than ever before, this is far from the case. People nowadays are so dependent on what they see on social media that they don't bother to double-check what they read. This problem is exacerbated when well-known celebrities, influencers, politicians, and fan sites opt to publish information with millions of their followers without first double-checking it.

The most serious problem with disseminating disinformation is that it has the potential to change people's minds, beliefs, and even damage their lives directly or indirectly if done consistently over time. It can be used to manipulate people, it can be used to further a political or religious agenda, it can be used to raise funds by lying to the public, it can be used to gain emotional sympathy or even to antagonise someone specifically, and we have recently seen how trolls have used it to publicly mock someone.

As a result, in order to create a safer, more respected, and more welcoming digital environment, the government should penalise people who purposefully propagate disinformation by fining them heavily for each piece of false information they post publicly. This will aid in the restoration of information's credibility in the social media sector as a whole.

However, there are various counter-arguments to penalising misinformation, including:
  • Article 19(1) guarantees everyone the right to free speech and expression (a)
  • If telling a lie in the real world isn't prohibited, why should a person be punished for telling a lie on a virtual platform?

We all know that Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution guarantees us the freedom to free speech and expression. This does not mean, however, that this right is absolute; like all other fundamental rights, it is subject to reasonable limitations. For example, no one should defame another simply because they have the right to say whatever they want.

Similarly, Indian Penal Code sections 292 to 294 prohibit the distribution of obscene words, photographs, drawings, books, and other materials. Furthermore, under Article 19(1), the State may impose restrictions on fundamental rights in the interests of "India's sovereignty and integrity, the State's security, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation, or incitement to an offence."

As a result, our fundamental right to free speech and expression is not absolute, and the State may impose reasonable restrictions on it from time to time for the reasons stated above.

Because we know that misinformation can sometimes jeopardise our nation's security or disrupt public order or morality, it makes more sense to punish the spread of misinformation with heavy fines, so that the spread of misinformation that threatens our country's unity and stability can be stopped at its source.

Now, let's look at the second argument: why should a falsehood that isn't penalised in the actual world be punishable in the virtual world? The answer is complicated, but the reason is that a single person in the digital world has far more potential to influence and reach thousands of people through a single sensational post. This would not be conceivable in the real world, because no one in our actual living reality pauses to listen to a random stranger.

Even if it is uploaded by a random stranger, people on social media have a tendency to believe what they see. Unfortunately, most individuals regard information published through random posts on random pages to be on par with news shared by reputable new channels; they don't try to distinguish between the two sources because they are simply lazy and uninformed.

No one questions the legitimacy of the post's creator, but some people take advantage of this and create false accounts, often known as troll accounts, to deceive others in order to spread their own political or religious propaganda, thus causing a schism among people.

Such annoyances caused by the propagation of misinformation must not be treated lightly, as they may constitute a long-term threat to our country's unity and security. In recent years, we've seen how misinformation is being exploited by some political activists to generate bias in favour of their own political or religious agenda, and the problem has gotten so bad that followers of such influencers have become exceedingly intolerant of those who hold opposing views. Fights can grow so tense that even close friends turn against each other and cease communicating, each believing that they have chosen the "right" political or religious line.

Another sad aspect of this is that social media corporations are unconcerned about the legitimacy of postings published by their users and reject any responsibility for allowing misinformation to propagate through their platforms.

As a result, it is past time for the government to recognise this growing problem and enact legislation to combat the dissemination of misinformation on social media, as this will help to preserve our country's unity and ensure that anyone who attempts to deceive the public is held accountable.

Information is extremely important in our lives nowadays because it allows us to stay in touch with reality and all that is going on around us. Every new piece of information we acquire causes us to subconsciously generate a new thought or attitude about it.

We rarely distinguish between information shared by a popular influencer or fan page, or even a random stranger, and information shared by authentic news channels or news websites in today's globalised world, where we use smartphones and computers every minute of our lives, because our minds make us believe everything flashed in front of our screens. In recent years, we've seen how political activists have utilized films and photographs from a previous event to mislead people about a present event. Not everyone realises it, but every piece of misinformation, whether it's a complete lie, a half-truth, misleading or biased information, can have far-reaching and deadly consequences.

This is because misinformation aids in the construction of a narrative over time; it can sometimes become so manipulative that those who believe it regard themselves as 'good' and superior,' while labelling those who disagree as 'bad' or 'inferior.' Such deceptive narratives create a false illusion of 'good' and 'bad,' or superior' and 'inferior,' which is nothing more than propaganda employed by cunning political fanatics to divide and govern people.

India, which has the world's largest population of illiterate adults, accounting for 37 percent of the global total[1], is more vulnerable to the dangers of misinformation, as our country's uneducated and less tech-savvy population is more likely to be lured into traps of false illusions and narratives created by political enthusiasts and religious fanatics. When educated people are careless and ignorant enough to not cross-check information available on social media platforms with reliable news sources, it is highly unlikely that the uneducated section of our population will do the same, especially if they are unaware of the dangers of social media or misinformation.

As a result, I believe it is past time for the government to intervene and educate the public about the need of solely relying on reputable news channels and news websites for information. The government should also penalise persons who use social media to propagate misinformation in order to serve their own selfish political and religious goals; this can be done by imposing large fines for each piece of misinformation published, as this will discourage further misinformation sharing.

Misinformation does not always imply a total untruth; it could be a half-truth, skewed news, or any deceptive information intended to manipulate or instil sensitive feelings, such as hate mongering.

People whose public posts have the potential to reach a huge number of people and who are followed by the general public for their works, thoughts, or opinions.

Someone who posts a deliberately irritating or unpleasant remark on the internet in order to irritate someone, attract attention, or cause trouble.

Investigation, study, instruction, intelligence, news, facts, or data provide knowledge.

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