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The Vicious Vice of the Viral Voice: How to curb the menace of fake news in the Indian media?

The Vicious Vice of the Viral Voice: How to curb the menace of fake news in the Indian media?

By K C Chinnamma

India is the largest and the most vibrant democracy in the world. One of the characteristic traits of a democratic society is the freedom of speech and expression. The freedom of media is derived from this freedom of speech and expression. In a democracy, media functions as the voice of the common man. It reflects the views of the people.  Media informs people and inspires them to think. The media is highly influential in shaping public opinion. Earlier in India, mass media was synonymous with the press and radio. The advent of technology and globalisation changed the face of mass media with the introduction of electronic media and the internet.

Since there were no fundamental rights in India prior to Independence, there was no guarantee of the freedom of expression or of the press.[1] The British administration controlled the Indian press through pre-censorship and licensing which greatly inhibited its freedom. The colonial experience of the Indians made them realize the importance of the freedom of press. The Constitution of India which came into force in 1950 comprised the values of democracy and liberty, bestowing upon the citizens of India the freedom of speech and expression. The freedom of media though not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution of India, is inherent in Article 19(1)(a) which deals with the freedom of speech and expression. However, the freedom of speech and expression is subject to reasonable restrictions under Article 19(2). Presently India has many legislations that regulate the freedom media of which the important legislations include the Official Secrets Act, the Contempt of Court Act, the Parliamentary Proceedings Act, the Copyright Act, the Press Council of India Act, the Cable Television Regulation Act, the Right to Information Act, and the Information Technology Act.

The press has been considered as one of the fundamental pillars of any functioning democracy for a considerable period of time, and the editors of news organizations have long viewed their roles as the custodians of society, deciding which news should be consumed by the common people, and which shouldn’t[2].While the freedom granted to the media has an important role in our society, it has its own drawbacks as well. The freedom of media when used responsibly can enlighten the citizens, create social awareness, make them politically conscious and can also act as a tool to fight injustice. However, it is necessary for the media to be responsible while exercising this freedom. The misuse of this power by the media could lead to many problems.

In the study of press law, ownership forms an important part. After Independence, due to deregulatory policies private ownership of the Press increased and it followed a commercial model of supply and demand. After liberalization in 1991, the Indian media industry welcomed foreign partnership which led to the dominance of corporate bodies in the Indian media and the increase in the number of private channels and newspapers[3]. Such corporate bodies try to protect their non-journalistic interest through the newspaper which is under their control.  Media owned by political parties use the media to further their political agenda and propaganda[4].

The tabloidization of news which started in the late 20th century caused detailed truthful reporting of important events to give way to stories that were more sensational in nature. Since its inception, the tabloid style has been criticized as inferior, appealing to base instincts and public demand for sensationalism[5].These days we see tabloid journalism gaining more importance then serious journalism. Tabloid journalism revolves around graphic crime stories, gossip, and even astrology. There have been concerns in the journalism community regarding the tabloidization of news and its potential threat to democracy[6].

            Television has pushed newspapers further towards tabloid journalism. Until 15 years ago, the news agenda was determined by the main wire service, the Press Trust of India, which fed newspapers national stories and even instructed them on the day’s “lead" stories. That has changed totally and last night’s television determines the morning’s front page. Things that would have been ignored or underplayed earlier by the brave or stubborn editor are now irresistible national stories because they are made so by prominent English news channels and their vernacular counterparts. Newspapers feel that they have lost control of the direction of news coverage[7].

            High culture, i.e. literature, classical music and art which is considered upmarket in the West doesn’t exist in our media. There are almost no pages dedicated to it. In India, celebrity gossip (“Page 3") which is considered downmarket in the West is called upmarket in the trade. All editors are familiar with the demand from proprietors and advertising sales executives to make their paper “more upmarket". Serious journalism like stories about middle India and its problems is considered downmarket here. The audience who accept this trend and do not demand a raise in the quality of journalism are partly to be blamed for this[8].

In the 21st century, online news consumption has gained momentum and social media has become the primary medium for news consumption[9].The revenue model has shifted towards being mostly advertisement driven, where users do not have to pay anything to read the news articles and the money comes from the clicks on the advertisements that are present on the news websites. Such shift in news consumption has caused a significant change in both the consumption pattern as well as the means of offering news content to the readers. The attractiveness of a news article’s content has become more relevant than the credibility of the organization writing that article. This has resulted in a fierce competition between the news outlets to capture the readers’ attention. A by-product of this competition is the advent of click baits, where in order to tempt the readers to click and read articles in their websites, the media organizations use flashy headlines that pique the interest of the readers[10].

"Technology companies including Apple, Google, Snapchat, Twitter, and, above all, Facebook have taken on most of the functions of news organizations, becoming key players in the news ecosystem, whether they wanted that role or not." said a March 2018 report by Columbia University's Tow Centre for Digital Journalism[11].In social media, anyone can become a publisher of content with virtually zero upfront cost, which has led to mushrooming of several social media only publisher start-ups. Emergence of such organizations has further crowded the media landscape already flooded with national, international and local news outlets, resulting in immense competition for user attention in such mediums.[12]

The unregulated nature of social media has led to the menace of fake news. A WhatsApp rumour warning that 300 people had descended on Gujarat looking to abduct and sell children triggered deadly mob attacks[13]. A rising tide of nationalism in India is driving ordinary citizens to spread fake news, according to a BBC research. The research found that facts were less important to some than the emotional desire to bolster national identity. Social media analysis suggested that right-wing networks are much more organised than on the left, pushing nationalistic fake stories further[14].The encrypted nature of these messages make it hard for the police to track them. Facebook has established fact-checking partnerships with 25 organizations in 14 countries to stem the spread of misinformation. Yet even fact-checking has its limits, and some people will remain committed to believing false information regardless of verification efforts, studies show. [15]

The only way India can require communication platforms to police content is if the country first imposes a blanket ban on apps that use end-to-end encryption. 
These social media applications can only read and police the messages of users if it stops encrypting their messages. This, however, would weaken consumer privacy and cybersecurity. In this scenario, India could fine organisations that do not stop the spread of false messages, similar to how Germany penalises platforms for not removing fake news. A better and more effective approach to limit the influence of hoaxes on WhatsApp and other platforms is to increase media literacy[16].

As of now, India doesn’t have any legislations regarding fake news. However, there are certain legal recourses available for people affected by fake news. Complaints can be lodged with the News Broadcasters Association (NBA) which represents the private television news and current affairs broadcasters. It is funded by its over 60 members. The NBA is the credible voice of news broadcasters to the government. It is self-regulatory in nature and probes complaints against news broadcasters in a fair manner. There is another body called the Indian Broadcast Foundation (IBF) which was created in 1999 to look into the complaints against contents aired by 24x7 channels. Over 650 news channels are in operation today in the country. Complaint against any broadcaster can be filed in English or Hindi to IBF online or offline for promoting smoking, abuse or any violent action. Then there is the Broadcasting Content Complaint Council (BCCC). A complaint relating to objectionable TV content or fake news can be filed to the Broadcasting Content Complain Council if a broadcaster incites communal hatred, encourages violence against women or child abuse, airs contents having gory scenes of violence, promotes superstition or consumption of drugs and other contraband substances[17].

Matters of fake news can be referred to the Press Council of India which is a statutory body. The Press Council Norms of Journalistic Conduct dictates that no scurrilous and defamatory material against a private citizen may be published even if it is true when no public interest is involved. It further says that the press has a duty, discretion and right to serve the public interest by drawing reader’s attention to citizens of doubtful antecedents and of questionable character but as responsible journalists they should observe due restraint and caution on hazarding their own opinion or conclusion in branding these persons as ‘cheats’, ‘killers’.etc.  [18] According to the Press Council Act, 1978, it can warn, admonish or censure the newspaper, the news agency, the editor or the journalist or disapprove the conduct of the editor or the journalist if it finds that a newspaper or a news agency has offended against the standards of journalistic ethics or public taste or that an editor or a working journalist has committed any professional misconduct. Under section 153 of the Indian Penal Code, action can be initiated against someone creating or spreading fake news if it can be termed as provocation for rioting. Defamation suit is another legal tool available in the case of fake news. If a person finds a fake news defamatory s/he can file a civil or criminal case for defamation. Section 499 of IPC makes defamation a criminal offence. Section 500 provides for punishment for criminal defamation that can extend up to a jail term of two years with or without fine.[19]Under sections 501 and 502, even the publisher and the seller of such defamatory material can be held criminally liable.

In Singapore, a parliamentary committee formed to deliberate fake news and its causes, consequences and countermeasures recommended to the Singapore government that it should look at bringing new legislation that would encourage social media platforms to demand greater transparency and accountability in the flow of content and would ensure that perpetrators of falsehoods are punished. The new law, it said, should take into account the responsibility of different stakeholders in the digital advertising ecosystem[20].Though libel actions are not as numerous as they are in countries like the United Kingdom, the number of matters brought before the Press Council is fairly large. In India, it is necessary for us to enact a suitable legislation keeping in mind aspects such as innocent dissemination of news, unintentional defamation, partial justification, fair comment, reports of certain proceedings to which qualified privilege attaches etc.  It is necessary in the present scenario, to replace the present uncodified position on the subject, to remove a number of anomalies and to liberalise the law keeping in view the constitutional rights regarding freedom of speech and expression and the reasonable restrictions that may be placed on it[21].

The legal conundrum that India faces when it comes to media law can be summed up in the words of the American politician and jurist, Earl Warren: “Our system faces no theoretical dilemma but a single continuous problem: how to apply to ever changing conditions the never-changing principles of freedom.” As the citizens of a civilised democratic nation, we need to exercise our right to freedom of expression with caution so as to not infringe the rights of our fellow citizens and our laws should reflect the same sentiment.


[1] Arnold v. Emp., AIR 1914 PC 116

[2] Pamela J Shoemaker, Tim P Vos, and Stephen D Reese, Journalists as Gatekeepers: The Handbook Of Journalism Studies, 73 (2009)

[3] Robin Jeffrey, The Newspaper Revolution in India

[4] Id.

[5] S. Elizabeth Bird, Tabliodization: What is it, and Does it Really Matter?. In The changing faces of journalism, Barbie Zelizer (Ed.). Routledge(2009)

[6] David Rowe, Obituary for the newspaper? Tracking the tabloid. Journalism (2011)


[8] Aakar Patel, When Every Newspaper Becomes A Tabloid: Why Was It Necessary For The Media To Cover The Tarun Tejpal Story In This Detail? LiveMint (7 Dec, 2013),

[9] Amy Mitchell, Jeffrey Gottfried, Jocelyn Kiley, and Katerina Eva Matsa, Social Media, Political News and Ideology, Pew Research Center, (Oct 2014)

[10] Abhijnan Chakraborty, Bhargavi Paranjape, Sourya Kakarla, and Niloy Ganguly, Stop Clickbait: Detecting and Preventing Clickbaits in Online News Media, ACM/IEEE ASONAM (2011)

[11] Agence France-Presse, Fake news: the media industry strikes back (July 13, 2018),

[12] Abhijnan Chakraborty, Rajdeep Sarkar, Ayushi Mrigen And Niloy Ganguly, Tabloids in the Era of Social Media? Understanding the Production and Consumption of Clickbaits in Twitter (Sep 9, 2017), 

[13] Supra at note 12

[14] Santanu Chakrabarti, Lucile Stengel and Sapna Solanki, DUTY, IDENTITY, CREDIBILITY: Fake news and the ordinary citizen in India, BBC News (12th November, 2018),

[15]Supra at note 12

[16] Michael McLaughlin, Here's How India Can Clean Up Fake News Mess, The Economic Times (22nd August, 2018), 


[17] Prabash K Dutta, How To Tackle Fake News Legally Without A Law In India, India Today (3rd April, 2018),

[18] The Press Council Norms of Journalistic Conduct 2 (1996)

[19] Supra at note 18

[20] Megha Mandavia, On Fake News: Singapore Law May Spur Conversation In India, The Economic Times (4th October, 2018), 

[21] Sebastian Paul, Forbidden Zones: Law and the Media, Lavanya Books, 2010,

Media and Ethics

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