True Lies and Fake News

Madhavankutty Pillai has no specialisations whatsoever. He is among the last of the generalists. And also Open chief of bureau, Mumbai  
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The pointlessness of social media regulation in the time of elections

IT WAS THE last US presidential elections that gave the world the impression that social media could decide who wins or loses. Since then Donald Trump, the man who came to power reaping this alleged manipulation, has portrayed himself as the true victim of fake news. Claims from both sides are suspect—that Facebook made any meaningful difference to Hillary Clinton’s loss, or that Trump is not the most famous purveyor of fake news. And it shows why the problem cannot be solved-–fake news cannot be filtered without excising politics itself, and everyone, not just Trump, participates willingly in it.

In an earlier age, you called it propaganda and considered it a normal concomitant of the political process. Voters got propaganda from all sides and it was left to their wisdom to decide on lies and truths. With social media, governments and institutions imagine all its problems are both new and have a solution. The Election Commission of India is the latest to fall into this mindset. On March 19th, it met representatives of social media platforms to try to address, among other things, the question of fake news in this election. ‘Election Commissioner Shri Ashok Lavasa pointed out that today’s has been a momentous meeting for evolution of ‘behaviour’ of Social Media platforms on Social Media. He said that voluntary restraint is a hallmark of civilized society and works as effectively as any regulation. He suggested that a clear clause on users’ voluntarily agreeing not to misuse social media platforms for election or political purposes should be considered by the management,’ said a press release.

The sentiment is noble but if the Election Commission had observed the playing of politics in social media across the world, it would know that regulation isn’t going to work. There is, for one, the sheer volume of numbers to regulate. And no one has any idea on how to do it. It is therefore left to the platforms like Facebook, Twitter or WhatsApp. Being clueless themselves, they initiate token measures that show they are acting but which make no difference. There can never be an algorithm to filter out fake news because there is no clear definition of what ‘truth’ is. Last week, Facebook blocked a popular account making a post against fascism by underlining fascist quotes. Take another example. Before every movie release, you will see rumours of actors being in a romance. How can technology decide whether it is a marketing stunt or not?

The alternative is to get people to report fake news, which is what the Election Commission is banking on. But that is immediately going to be gamed by interested parties deliberately reporting true news as fake. You can see this already happening in Twitter when online political personalities get their accounts reported and suspended for innocuous remarks. In the cutthroat atmosphere of a General Election, amplify such tricks manifold. It might be more fruitful to not give social media any more importance than it deserves. Most people don’t change their opinions or votes based on WhatsApp forwards or reading Tweets.