We are living in unprecedented times and we are bombarded by a surge of information – all the time. Can we really sift through the sea of words and make sense of all the information that leaps out at us? Now with the pandemic that has been trending for months, the new normal is ‘digital’ and information overload is pretty much inescapable. It can become over-exhausting and overwhelming to deal with so much information; not to mention, trying to sift through what’s fact and what’s fake, which news sources are trustworthy, which leaves you wondering how you can use it to make informed decisions. We are still learning how to search out, consume, and filter it in the best way possible.
Keeping with the times, Impact of COVID-19 on online Content & Policy was the discussion at the SPAG Dialogue: The Policy Series 1, which was moderated by Aman Gupta, Managing Partner, SPAG. The panel included Berges Y. Malu, Head of Public Policy and Policy Communications at ShareChat, Govindraj Ethiraj, Founder, BOOM & IndiaSpend, Paroma Roy Chowdhury, Senior Director, Asia Communications and Public Affairs, SoftBank Group International and Sanjay Khan, Partner, Khaitan & Co.
Even before the pandemic hit us, the social media platforms had been under pressure to address the spread of false news and misinformation. Starting with the rising phrase – ‘the new world order’- it is emerging as a conversational theme today. Looking at the science of information (informatology) – how is it affecting the world? With so much of fake news and disinformation floating around, it is indeed spreading like a virus, mentioned Aman, as the talk kicked off. How could we adapt, develop, evaluate and mitigate issues that are on the move today? What could be done in the policy space?
Search movement spilling over
Why such a great search movement is happening, sweeping with it serious issues too? One’s ability to believe in things is decreasing overtime. Disinformation spreads faster as our internet and smart phone penetration increases. In India, the spread of disinformation is higher than other countries, but the larger problem is – what do we do? And according to Govindraj, it affects us mentally, physically and it accentuates reduction of trust. When trust starts to erode, there is an economic impact, from business point of view and there is also lack of trust amongst the community. Referring to the Edelman Trust Barometer where it displays that the trust factor is eroding brand communication, he outlined that the brand message is going to diminish because trust is falling e.g. Maggi which recovered, but the damage was done. Brands have lost sales because of a high degree of suspicion; overtime, our ability to believe in the true message is reducing. Therefore, we have to work harder. We have to address it at two levels, he felt – “We have to fight and fight harder. There’s no Gandhian way out! And, we have to educate”.
A study done on the coronavirus fact-checks revealed that at the beginning – checks were related to corona, but later in May it shifted to a certain community for spreading the pandemic and pin-pointed some people who were responsible; then in June –July, it showed that how fake news spreads with amazing speed and alacrity and shifted to events like the Sushant Singh Rajput suicide, border attacks etc. And, it capitalises and starts repurposing and pushing forward. “When you study the whole issue, you find many frightening trends,” he revealed.
How can such flow of information be mitigated?
What is the role of companies to mitigate such information flow? As a platform, Berges informed that when such content is reported, they send it to fact checkers like them (incidentally, they cover fourteen languages!) and then they reduce its reach. “Beyond this, the government needs to come out with new regulations and laws, so that people are scared of sharing fake news. They do it for fun but it leads to real world harm,” he disclosed and putting the blame on a platform is difficult. In an open democracy you cannot control speech. The only way is to bring in policies. In future technologies like AI and ML can there be mechanisms to filter out misinformation? Investments need to be done by the platforms, and we need to ensure that no factual misinformation is going out from newspapers nor the government (e.g. ayurveda cure for COVID). “You can’t fight fake news. It’s been there from the time of Mahabharat!” he exclaimed.
“It’s all about the need for credible information”, said Paroma. How do you see this emerging? What is the next phase to mitigate misinformation? She explained that there are three levels – firstly, it must be credible and the onus is on editors, print media, TV, digital to be as factual as possible. Secondly, the packaging is important. Is there a way to package the information to be useful? She recommended to package in small bits, to make it attractive and not spurious and then people will be compelled to look at it. Lastly there’s censorship and regulation. “You need to be responsible and have intent and use tools like AI, but don’t use too many tools. It should be a combination of policy and tools,” she said.
Is there an evolving pattern emerging? As a society, we have a problem of passing on pieces of information without checking whether it is true or not; there are policies but we are not dealing with anything new, observed Sanjay. He didn’t believe it’s about getting a law in place, but it’s a societal problem and there is a data privacy problem in India; therefore it is a personality, a habitual issue to be solved at the societal level. It has to flow top down as in the financial sector where it filters down. “You should have enforcement of existing regulations and no new laws are required,” he emphasised and added – “Fear of posting anything wrong is important. We need self regulatory authority.”
The road ahead
What’s the way forward? Self regulations need to come into play. Media makes mistakes pointed out Govindraj having been a financial journalist. A lot of TV networks take cover under the facts that they’re reporting real time & don’t have time to check them. But you have to remember that regarding the problem of information dissemination – 90% happens beyond media. In certain countries like Germany the onus is on platforms and in some countries it is not so; in India, you are hauled up and charges are issued. “I would argue for self regulation, education and tracking,” he said.
Is there a need for different platforms to come together? Is that a decent ask, questioned Aman. Platforms coming together is problematic, argued Berges and added that is not a good idea at all. Govindraj suggested that all platforms should contribute some time and effort to improve the situation of information overload and misinformation. As a consumer of information, reasoned Paroma the answer is – “Teach, educate & sensitise”. So what’s required are – more dialogues, transparency and the need to look at simplifying the process and to have a third party body to look at solutions.
Dangers of internet penetration & role of social media
Do brands understand the dangers of internet penetration? Brands understand but it can be problematic, said Berges while Paroma felt that brands are getting targeted, but swift rebuttal is required. Prompt legal action is also necessary, added Sanjay.
What is the role of social media platforms? Is it the voice of the masses? There is a lot of distortion today; and manipulation of platforms is what we have to worry about, and there is no single conclusion said Govindraj. Some apps like Tik Tok have seen incredible growth and there have been mass participation, but we need a framework here – a policy, remarked Paroma.
But, one thing was crystal clear. This topic needs more conversations in the coming months, was Aman’s parting shot.
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