hidden image

The Constitutional Quandary of Fact-Checking Unit

Aakash Aakash
25 Mar 2024

Amidst whispers of combating the rampant spread of misinformation, the Government orchestrated an amendment to the IT Act, unfurling the grand announcement of a Fact Check Unit (FCU). However, its inception raises more questions than answers. Shrouded in promises of rectifying the information landscape, this unit was assigned the noble duty of sifting through the digital labyrinth to verify the authenticity of information regarding governmental actions and policies. While ostensibly crafted to safeguard truth and integrity, its execution tiptoes perilously close to the edges of constitutional principles and procedural fairness.

Empowered to scrutinise the digital tapestry of social media posts and articles, it wields the sword of truth with the power to initiate legal action against purveyors of falsehoods. Yet, this authority comes at a cost that threatens to undermine the very fabric of democratic discourse. The FCU's jurisdiction, though aimed at safeguarding national integrity, casts a wide net that threatens to ensnare legitimate forms of expression.

The unit's jurisdiction extends beyond mere labelling, delving into the realms of consequential action. Content flagged by the unit as deceptive or misleading is mandated to be taken down by online platforms if they wish to retain their 'safe harbour'. In tandem with the imperative to remove flagged content, internet service providers are tasked with blocking URLs associated with such deceptive material. This multi-pronged approach supposedly mitigates the spread of misinformation and also disrupts the channels through which it proliferates.

The FCU's misalignment with its stated objectives further muddies the waters. While ostensibly established to combat misinformation, its scope extends far beyond governmental affairs. This glaring discrepancy highlights a fundamental flaw in its design, which must be addressed if we are to navigate the treacherous waters of digital discourse with integrity and purpose.

Foremost among the concerns is the encroachment upon the right to freedom of speech and expression enshrined in Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution. This fundamental right, a cornerstone of democratic discourse, finds itself under siege as the FCU assumes the mantle of arbiter over the digital realm.

Moreover, the murky waters of ambiguity cloud the FCU's mandate, posing a potent threat to the fabric of democratic expression. The vague language peppered throughout the government order provides fertile ground for arbitrary interpretation, casting a long shadow over legitimate forms of expression such as investigative journalism. In the absence of clear guidelines, the FCU's reach extends far beyond its intended scope, ensnaring innocuous expressions in its wide net of scrutiny.

Equally troubling is the absence of procedural safeguards, leaving individuals vulnerable to the whims of unchecked authority. The fundamental tenet of fair procedure, enshrined in principles of natural justice, finds itself relegated to the sidelines as the FCU assumes the role of judge, jury, and executioner. The denial of the opportunity for individuals to be heard before their posts are subjected to fact-checking constitutes a blatant violation of due process—a transgression that strikes at the heart of democratic governance.

Following the release of the initial draft bearing the name of the Press Information Bureau (PIB) in January 2023, internal deliberations within the Government shed light on pressing concerns. Doubts loomed large regarding the efficacy of the PIB's fact-checking prowess in the digital age. The exponential growth of online information presented a formidable challenge, raising doubts about the unit's ability to keep pace with the ever-evolving landscape of misinformation. It is evident that the sheer volume of information circulating online threatens to overwhelm even the most robust fact-checking mechanisms.

It was not merely a question of logistical capacity that is troubling. There are also concerns surrounding the unit's perceived public credibility. Past instances wherein the PIB had erroneously flagged accurate information as fake served as a sobering reminder of the unit's fallibility. These lapses, though perhaps inadvertent, have eroded public trust and cast a shadow of doubt over the unit's ability to discern truth from falsehood.

In the court of public opinion, credibility is currency, and the PIB itself faces a crisis of confidence. In an era characterised by rampant misinformation and digital disinformation campaigns, the need for a trustworthy arbiter of truth was more pressing than ever. However, the unit's tarnished track record threatened to undermine its very purpose, raising questions about its efficacy and reliability.

Instead of resorting to unilateral measures like the FCU, the Government should engage in consultations with stakeholders, including the public and intermediaries like social media platforms. Drawing inspiration from initiatives like the European Commission's Code of Practice on Disinformation, there is a need for a collaborative and consultative approach to combat misinformation.

The issue of misinformation and fake news is ideally addressed by independent bodies, as emphasised by the need for a monitoring network to adhere to principles of natural justice, including prior notice, the right to appeal, and judicial oversight. States possess their own information and publicity departments, which are adept at clarifying news related to them. Moreover, independent fact-checkers play a crucial role in combating misinformation on social media platforms. Therefore, it would have been prudent for such units to be established with the involvement of journalists and other stakeholders, ensuring a collaborative and inclusive approach to addressing the challenge of misinformation.

While the Government's establishment of a Fact-Checking Unit reflects a recognition of the perils of misinformation, its approach raises serious constitutional and procedural concerns. To effectively combat misinformation, there is a pressing need for a comprehensive and proactive strategy that respects fundamental rights and engages all stakeholders. Rather than resorting to draconian measures, the Government should prioritise dialogue, collaboration, and education to safeguard the integrity of information dissemination in the digital age.

Recent Posts

The furore surrounding NEET has once again brought the need for systemic reforms in education to the fore.
apicture Jaswant Kaur
24 Jun 2024
The RSS' sudden snipe against immoral politics and concern for issues it had hitherto left untouched can be perceived from many angles.
apicture Ram Puniyani
24 Jun 2024
Mr Modi and Mr Bhagwat are both vicious personalities with a cussed arrogance
apicture John Dayal
24 Jun 2024
The Modi-led BJP has aimed for a "Congress-mukt Bharat" since 2014, weakening democracy.
apicture Jacob Peenikaparambil
24 Jun 2024
Modi has gone on record saying that he has invited Pope Francis to India!
apicture Cedric Prakash
24 Jun 2024
None of us have yet emerged from the shock of one of the most devastating fire accidents in Kuwait, which killed 50 migrant workers, including 46 Indians, on Wednesday, June 12, 2024.
apicture Dr Arnald Mahesh SDB
24 Jun 2024
Uttarakhand's forest fires have resulted in the loss of not only human lives but also a vast forest area.
apicture Vidya Bhushan Rawat
24 Jun 2024
Prime Minister Modi tends to dismiss climate change, attributing the challenges to altered human behaviour.
apicture Peter Fernandes, SFX
24 Jun 2024
I believe, and this is not a political article, that these elections have shown us qualities of true leadership.
apicture Robert Clements
24 Jun 2024
Many years ago, Mahatma Gandhi spoke about seven crimes. One of them is "Politics without principle."
apicture M L Satyan
17 Jun 2024