By Meghna Bal
Budget 2019: Technology saw a minor mention in the Budget 2019 with the pronouncement for the creation of 1 lakh digital villages over the next five years. The government intends to actualise its digital village vision through the Common Service Centre (CSC) scheme. A CSC is a vehicle for last mile delivery of essential government services in rural and remote areas. With this announcement in Budget 2019, however, it seems that the government has missed an opportunity to do something meaningful in the realm of digital policy. A recent news report indicates that the long-term plan to digitise villages may be a non-starter, as there are systemic problems of financial feasibility and accountability in the workings of CSCs.
A more sensible move in Budget 2019 would have been to channel existing funds towards an immediate impact, short-term initiative such as a digital literacy campaign aimed at tackling fake news.
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Fake news is now understood as false information that is spread through the use of digital mediums such as social networking sites and applications. It is problematic because individuals are not generally discerning when engaging with information on these platforms. There are several reasons for this. One, the information is often sent by a known individual, particularly on instant messaging platforms, so people are not immediately prompted to question it. Two, algorithms on many social media websites are geared towards feeding an individual s existing political or ideological bias and will present her with information such as news articles or any other media, that conforms with those prejudices.
Illustratively, a study carried out by the Pew Research Centre found that consistent conservatives found news items on Facebook that consistently aligned with their views. People are generally loath to critically analyse information that confirms any core belief of theirs, even if it might seem suspect.
Resultantly, fake news can sometimes be weaponised to further nefarious ends. In India, for instance, online rumours have run amuck, spurring several incidents of violence which resulted in the deaths of 24 individuals in 2018 alone. The rampant violence prompted the government to crack down on social media platforms, impelling the latter to figure out ways to counter and stop the propagation of false incendiary narratives online.
A study released by Oxford last year revealed that social media is used as a critical tool for disseminating propaganda during the election season in India. Certain social media giants are preparing themselves to safeguard the general election from any elements that might undermine its integrity. As such, it would have behoved the government to consider launching a digital literacy campaign that informed citizens about the nature of fake news and how to identify it. Such an initiative would have served as a useful way to counter some of the inherent psychological mechanisms that allow fake news to perpetuate harm and preserve the probity of the national electoral process.
Regarding a ready template for the content of such a campaign, the government could have considered the infographic created by the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions that encourages people to think more critically about the digital media they engage with on a daily basis. The infographic prompts the reader to investigate the background of the media, when it was published, consider that it might be satire, and verify the author s credentials and their information sources. The infographic could have been reproduced and translated into regional languages for dissemination through media that the government has already used to raise awareness about its other orders and programs such as television, newspapers, and radio.
As a further step, consultations with stakeholders hailing from academia, industry, and civil society could have been held to refine the messaging of the campaign further, to frame it more appropriately within the Indian context.
The government could have channelled the remainder of the advertising and publicity budget for the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology to fund the campaign. The use of existing funds would have also done well to keep the program in line with the traditional tenets of the interim budget, which is generally only supposed to be used to make allocations for expenditures to be carried out till the end of the current fiscal year.
(The author is a lawyer and a technology policy expert. The views expressed in the article are the author s own.)