Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto

Opinion | Human rights caught in the fake news storm

If flow of information is a human rights necessity, to block or distort it is a violation

Can phrases such as “IT cell" and “fake news" morph into issues related to human rights and the intersection of business and human rights? Certainly, as India diligently monitors itself, suppresses itself, and misleads itself.

It’s heartening to see UK-based Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB) flag “Harnessing collective power to combat lies and propaganda online" as that watchdog’s key agenda for 2020. It acknowledges the reality of, say, an American and Indian surge of neo-nativism, among several similar trends in a swathe from Eastern Europe and Turkey to hardened practitioners Russia and China, to bring risk and culpability to the doors of governments and businesses alike.

Freedom is the core on which the internet is predicated, a default to override the suppression of information by governments and “powerful interests", as IHRB puts it. To extend the premise, if flow of information is a human rights necessity, then to block that flow or distort that flow, as in the Union territory of Jammu and Kashmir and intermittently in other regions of India, amounts to a violation of human rights in the name of political imperative and national, and even, nationalistic, security.

Equally, IHRB posits that “the troubling spread of misinformation and disinformation" online presents “serious challenges, including for business", and that “purveyors of false information or ‘fake news’ find newer ways to reach their targets for a growing range of purposes."

All this greatly impacts human rights, as in India—most recently in a disturbing string of events from mid-2019 onward. It began with the implementation of the central government’s Kashmir policy, which included the isolation of Kashmir through blocking of the internet, incarcerating Kashmir’s political leadership, sieving entry, and massively modulating news of Kashmir through government agencies. The impact of human rights then extended to spin related to the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill and its legislative avatar of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, and to portray as benign the National Register of Citizens and the National Population Register. It then extended to the ongoing and massive media, social media/digital media effort to counter citizens’ protests against, and concerns about, all three exercises, and, most recently, the virulent campaign for elections to Delhi’s assembly on 8 February.

“When one side of a debate or campaign has access to sophisticated technological tools to intervene on a matter of public importance and manipulates human thinking towards a specific outcome, democracy is undermined and consensus stifled," IHRB reiterates. “Policies based on misinformation and poor analysis can affect businesses, adversely impacting their viability. For example, those denying climate change and resisting the transition to a non-carbon economy are not only undermining public policy, but also the viability of companies investing in clean technology," it says.

That chimes sweetly in the post-Davos haze of good cheer, after business and political leaders exchanged pro-forma climate-hugs, as it were, alongside being reprimanded by climate-change wunderkind Greta Thunberg. However, it is the oldest open secret that several businesses do whatever it takes to distort reality, even create alternative realities, for the bottom-line, just as several political parties and politicians do for votes and power. Moreover, businesses in telecommunication and data and media-flow cannot jettison responsibility simply by stating they are service providers, not creators or distributors of content.

“Companies that provide gateways to the internet, web service providers, those that facilitate dissemination of information, and those that catalogue information and make it accessible, are at the centre of the fake news storm," IHRB states. “These companies have argued for too long that they are ‘safe harbours,’ merely the providers of infrastructure, such as roads or power cables," it says.

Such assertions no longer fly because such service providers give in to bullying or requests from governments and businesses to remove content these influencers consider inimical or ideologically threatening. Under pressure, providers close or severely curtail the internet. Regulators—governments, really—are given access to data. “The companies involved have also been using their own policies aggressively to control what is said—or not—on their infrastructure." “In future, companies like Facebook will have to reckon with the fact that they are publishers, not merely carriers," IHRB states. It’s difficult to disagree in the face of Facebook Inc.’s operations and that of WhatsApp Inc., of which it’s the parent. In the face of Twitter’s operations too.

It’s all out there. It’s often ugly. And it needs to be called out before it can be cured. That’s the message.

This column focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights and runs on Thursdays.

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