The programme aims to create awareness on the spread of fake news and misinformation among students and other vulnerable populations. But there are challenges.
Kerala’s Left government is coming up with a digital media literacy programme to check fake news. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan says the initiative, Satyameva Jayate, will be a comprehensive programme aiming at tackling misinformation and sensitising the public towards the pitfalls of the post-truth world. Even though several private programmes are available for the public to get the awareness of fake news, few government-sponsored initiatives exist today in the world that target misinformation.
What’s “Satyameva Jayate” (Truth Alone Triumphs) about? Can a state-sponsored initiative put a full stop to fake news? How will the public know whether a slice of information is fake or real and whom to trust?
On January 1, 2021, Kerala announced the digital media literacy programme with the aim of offering digital literacy training for students in schools and colleges by encouraging the institutions to develop a curriculum on media literacy. The programme is expected to help students to track fake news and prevent them from further spreading, and equip them with awareness about how social media and the internet should be handled.
The programme would primarily look at five points: what is misinformation; why it is spreading fast; what are the precautions we should take while using social media; how do those who spread fake news make moolah; and what are the steps citizens should take to check misinformation.
Kerala’s fake news woes
Kerala’s smartphone and internet penetration is much higher than the other states in India. That makes the risk of fake news and misinformation higher for the South Indian state. According to the ‘Digital in India’ report by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IMAI), Kerala stands second highest in internet penetration rate with 56 per cent with Delhi NCR topping the list with 69 per cent penetration, as of November 2019.
According to the National Statistical Office (NSO) survey, Kerala continues to be the most literate state in India, with 96.2 per cent literacy rate. But the cocktail of internet penetration and high literacy levels make the state vulnerable to technology-driven misinformation and reports suggest that it has become a hotbed for online fake news, often calling for intervention from regulators and law-enforcement agencies.
Digital media experts have identified the most vulnerable groups in terms of susceptibility to misinformation. Students feature prominently in the list. Kerala believes by sensitising students on digital literacy it can avoid a catch-them-young situation on fake news in the State.
What is digital literacy?
The Unesco defines digital literacy as the ability to define, access, manage, integrate, communicate, evaluate and create information safely and appropriately through digital technologies and networked devices for participation in economic and social life. Ensuring optimum levels of digital literacy becomes important for India considering that the country has over 500 million smartphone users, according to a recent report by Indian Cellular and Electronics Association (ICEA). This is expected to reach 829 million by 2022. However, about 90 per cent of the population is digitally illiterate, notes a report from the Digital Empowerment Foundation in 2018.
The arrival and spread of Covid-19 seem to have exacerbated the misinformation drive. The pandemic acted as a catalyst in bringing a major chunk of our lives — from work to education to entertainment to communication — online. Along with it came the deluge of misinformation, so much so that the World Health Organisation formed a new discipline ‘Infodemiology’ to tackle the menace, which it termed an ‘infodemic’, with the help of data scientists, epidemiologists, social scientists, communication specialists, digital health and technology application specialists and so on. From the news about Vitamin C home remedies to warding off the virus to prescriptions recommending cow urine to cure the disease, India saw a deluge of fake news during the period, making an already bad situation worse.
Kerala’s fight against fake news
Kerala has been trying to address this situation for long. In September 2020, CM Vijayan said the government had set up a special team of law enforcement personnel to track down people who disseminate misinformation on social media and beyond The anti-fake news division was headed by an ADGP rank police office and its key focus was to prevent the spread of misinformation on Coronavirus in the state. A fact check division was also set up under the Information and Public Relations Department(IPRD) to scrutinise the information spreading through news and messages on social media.
In fact, in 2018, Satyameva Jayate was introduced in Kannur district in north Kerala under the supervision of the then district collector Mir Mohammed Ali, which aimed at educating the students of class 8 to 12 of 150 government schools in the district. The teachers trained the students by informing them about the different ways in which they could spot fake news and misinformation, and ward off temptation to consume sensational news. The students were also sensitised of the idea of the ‘filter bubble’.
Not only Kerala
Interestingly, in July 2018, Uttar Pradesh set up a Digital Armies unit to stop the spread of rumours and fake news. Under the plan, nearly 1,500 police stations will have a WhatsApp group consisting of 250 members. The group would include ex-servicemen, teachers, doctors, lawyers and journalists among others. The digital volunteers will share the fake posts, rumours, misinformation and videos with the police and meanwhile, the correct information would be shared among the locals to lessen the spread of rumours.
But the initiative had met with criticism as rights activists pointed out that entrusting the police with such initiatives can have negative ramifications, especially considering how UP has been clamping down on dissent. The Kerala model, anchoring on digital literacy, seems to be different in this context.
Recently, the Supreme Court had asked the centre to form an authority to keep a tab on fake news.
The later government informed the court that it had issued several directions to check the spread of fake news that impacts communal harmony. The Information and Broadcasting Ministry had said it had formed a Fact Check Unit in the Press Information Bureau on April 2, 2020, as part of its fight against fake news.
But digital literacy experts say a comprehensive, decentralised and bottom-up approach towards tackling misformation is the need of the hour as it will help fight fake news on social media and beyond while ensuring that such measures won’t hamper freedom of speech and people’s right to dissent.