By Anuraag Saxena & Ankur Gupta
India’s Ministry of Electronics and IT (MeITY) issued an advisory on 21 May to ‘all social media platforms’. They said that identifying the B.1.1617 as the ‘Indian Variant’ tantamounted to spreading false news.
Singapore’s ministry of health, a day earlier, ordered the publication of a correction notice to social media and local media outlets, demanding that claims of a ‘Singapore Variant’ were false.
Singapore saw immediate compliance, while India-based offices of the very same companies resisted.
The frustration of MeiTY with global social media platforms has been apparent for a while. The initial euphoria, that started with courting social media companies, quickly gave way to “consultations” and take down notices; now worsening to warnings, police raids, and high-profile litigation.
The gold-standard set by Singapore’s handling of falsehoods & fake news on social media, could inform India’s evolving approach to managing this scourge.
The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA). 2019 empowers the relevant ministry to order the issuance of a ‘correction notice’ rather than removals. Social media platforms are likely to resist actively removing content lest the content clearly violates national laws. Issuing a ‘correction notice’ allows for a grey option in the false-binaries of black and white. It also reframes the argument from a freedom-of-speech argument to a conversation about truthfulness and factuality.
India’s Information Technology Regulations, on the other hand, offer a one size fits all approach for diverse intermediaries; whether it be network access intermediaries like telcos, DNS services or content intermediaries like social media entities or media outlets. On the other hand, POFMA is an example of outcome-based regulation to contain the spread of false information on digital platforms. Its nuance is evident in a range of directions which the government may invoke. It authorises fines and removal, but also correction notices, stop communication directions, and disabling access to falsehood direction. While social media companies can challenge POFMA orders in court, there has been no judicial challenge yet, perhaps hinting to the robustness of such regulation. Contrast that with rampant litigation in India between these same companies and the Indian authorities.
The process is as important as the product when it comes to creating regulation and making it acceptable. The process of forging POFMA was characterised by publicly aired parliamentary select committee hearings where a wide variety of stakeholders presented their views directly to law makers. The intense scrutiny and debate which POFMA spurred among the public in Singapore arguably helped create a degree of certainty, if not approval of the legislation. The numerous debates around the POFMA gave the legislators a chance to repeatedly clarify the intent and remit of POFMA curbing misunderstanding about the rights, duties and powers.
Regulatory clarity is important and certainty is key. In Singapore, this has often been achieved through future-design principles about the impact of potential legislation, conducting many rounds of public consultations and seeking views from even the most vehement critics and running ‘publicly’ campaigns to forewarn the public of impending legislation and how it impacts them.
But, there’s a bigger deterrent in the Singapore toolkit. This clarity and resolve is communicated extremely effectively. Not reactively, after the problem occurs, but proactively and strategically.
Beyond the formal legislative, administrative, and backchannel processes; Singapore insists on public hearings with social media companies. Public representatives, insisting on public interests, on a public platform, can be quite commanding. Additionally, senior leaders have assertively insisted on their sovereign rights.
Singapore’s minister of law K Shanmugam said, “They know that the Singapore Government cannot be bought. We don’t take money from their lobbyists. And we mean what we say. They can do business with us, honourably. Singapore provides a proper rule of law framework for everyone. But they must also be responsible.”
Choosing assertiveness over mollycoddling assures desirable outcomes. Robust regulation and assertive communication ensures compliance. While a little excessive, one is reminded of Theodore Roosevelt’s statement, “If you’ve got them by the b****, their hearts and minds will follow.”
(Anurag Saxena is based in Singapore, and is a board advisor and public affairs expert & Ankur Gupta is a member of the Internet Society Singapore Chapter, teaching media and technology law. The views expressed are their own.)