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FREEDOM OF SPEECH IN THE DIGITAL ERA: ADDRESSING MISINFORMATION AND HATE SPEECH

ABSTRACT

 

In the digital era, freedom of speech faces unprecedented challenges and opportunities. This abstract explores the intricate balance between protecting this fundamental right and addressing the pervasive issues of misinformation and hate speech online. While digital platforms have democratized expression, they have also facilitated the rapid spread of false information and harmful content, which can undermine democratic processes and incite violence. Effective regulation is crucial but must be carefully crafted to avoid infringing on free speech. This study examines current regulatory approaches, technological solutions, and the role of digital literacy in mitigating these issues, aiming to propose a framework that upholds freedom of speech while ensuring a safe and truthful online environment. Freedom of speech remains a cornerstone of democratic societies, fostering open discourse, innovation, and societal progress. However, the advent of social media and other online platforms has led to an environment where false information can spread rapidly and widely, often outpacing corrective measures. Misinformation, ranging from false news stories to misleading health advice, poses substantial risks to public well-being and democratic integrity. The digital landscape's anonymity and reach also facilitate the proliferation of hate speech, targeting individuals and communities based on race, religion, gender, and other characteristics, leading to real-world harm and societal division. Technological solutions, such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, are increasingly employed to detect and mitigate the spread of misinformation and hate speech. These tools can identify patterns and flag problematic content at scale, but they also face issues of bias, accuracy, and the need for continuous refinement to keep pace with evolving tactics used by those spreading harmful content. This study examines current regulatory frameworks, technological interventions, and educational initiatives aimed at mitigating misinformation and hate speech while preserving the essence of freedom of speech. It proposes a balanced, multi-faceted approach that integrates robust regulation, advanced technology, and comprehensive digital literacy programs. The goal is to uphold the foundational right to freedom of speech while ensuring a safe, truthful, and respectful online environment that supports the well-being and cohesion of society.

INTRODUCTION

 According to Article 19(1)(a), Freedom of speech is the very first right guaranteed by the constitution of India to all its citizens. Although this right is not absolute and is subject to certain restrictions which have been provided under Article 19(2).[1] This right is intricately related to the principle of democracy mentioned in the Constitution. In the digital era the Freedom which has been given to citizens to speak freely and to keep their views and opinions discreetly is a matter of complexity, especially when it is related to addressing misinformation and hate speech. Internet has changed the way of expressing peoples thought and their way of communicating, and the medium of sharing information. Which leads the society towards both positive and negative effects.

 In the case of Indian Express Newspapers[2], the Court highlighted that ‘the freedom of expression serves four broad social purposes:

·       It helps an individual to attain self-fulfilment;

·       It assists in the discovery of truth;

·       It strengthens the capacity of an individual to participate in decision making; and

·       It provides a mechanism by which it would be possible to establish a reasonable balance between stability and social change.

 

IT RULES,2021: EFFECTS

The recent guidelines released by the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021 have caused an uproar in the public and these rules are being subjected to be fundamentally unconstitutional on various grounds, particularly on the ground of violating the freedom and right to speak freely and to seek one’s opinion. This has caused a lot of controversy as there is a clash in the thoughts, opinions and views of the general public. Government defended there move by stating that there was a need of such rules as there was a lot of complaints regarding the contents which is published on such social media platforms online which cause harm to the sentiments of the citizens. But the act of Government is questionable as we have already seen that in case of any discrepancy on social media platforms such as Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook the account of the individual causing such problem shall be taken down immediately also in case of any misleading information which is causing emotional as well as mental harm to other individual shall also be taken into consideration and such content or misinformation shall be removed immediately. But none of these is done by the intermediary platforms on receiving the orders from Government. 

The case of Shreya Singhal v. Union of India[3], dealt directly with the freedom of speech and expression in the digital era. Through this case, Section 66A of the IT Act[4], was declared as unconstitutional and invalid.  In brief, Section 66A of the IT Act stated that ‘any person who sends through a computer resource or communication device any information that is grossly offensive, or with the knowledge of its falsity, the information is transmitted for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience, danger, insult, injury, hatred, or ill will.’

The court, in this case. held that the above law was unconstitutional on substantive grounds and that as the terms in the above provisions were broad and undefined, it sought to cover ‘a very large amount of protected and innocent speech’ as terms like ‘annoyance’ and ‘inconvenience’ could not be deemed to fall under Article 19(2) which deals with reasonable restrictions on the grounds of issues of more gravity. It was concluded that this article sought to limit all forms of internet communication and thus the above restrictions from Section 66A of the IT Act, indeed had a ‘chilling effect’ on the right to freedom of speech and expression and were unreasonable in nature.

 

RECENT SCENARIO:

We have already seen a lot of cases related to violation of freedom of speech but the recent case which is prevailing nowadays is divorce rumours of Hardik Pandya an Indian cricketer, amidst the cricket tournament IPL(Indian premier League) there was a sudden flow of these groundless rumours which might have caused mental as well as emotional harm to the family and the person itself, Hardik Pandya and his wife Natasha Stankovic as there is no official announcement done by them regarding there divorce but people are much more interested in their life’s and are giving their opinions without any relevant piece of evidence, this clearly shows how we the Citizens are violating our Fundamental Right of Speech and Expression.

Another example of violating the Freedom of speech is the death rumours of Poonam Pandey, her team gave this false information of her death through social media and the entire world was in shock. It was a shameful act which was only done for promotional gimmick. On Friday, February 2, a post on Poonam Pandey’s social media handle (Instagram) claimed that the Model lost her life to Cervical cancer, creating shockwaves across the industry. The emotional statement asked for privacy during this grieving period. While questions started rising once lack of information took over, it turns out Poonam Pandey is actually alive and it was all a promotional gimmick.[5]

The challenges and the strategies for controlling the negative effects of misinformation and hate speech while upholding the freedom of speech.

As stated by the Court in the case of Romesh Thappar[6], the circulation of ideas through press media upholds Article 19(1)(a)[7]. Like any situation, the era of digital media can be looked at in two ways- as a blessing or as a boon. For example, the recent ban of Chinese applications by the Central Government on the grounds that the applications were ‘prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of state and public order’[8] have been seen in a positive light by some but others claim that it is a move that is violative of the right to freedom of speech and expression as the ban included various social media apps which had a major user base in India.

 

CHALLENGES FACED

Speed and propagation of information: social media platforms and internet concedes any piece of content or information to spread rapidly around the world, which makes it difficult to stop the flow of misleading information or rumours.

Social media platforms such as Instagram, Twitter and Facebook can inflate such misleading information or hate speech to millions of users much more rapidly before any preventive measures can be taken.

Anonymity and Pseudonymity: The anonymity provided by the internet can encourage people to spread misinformation and hate speech without any fear of consequences.

Pseudonymous accounts are being used to spread false stories and contents which makes it difficult to trace the origin of malicious content.

Definition of Misinformation and Hate Speech: we do not have any universally accepted definition of misinformation and hate speech and what constitutes as misinformation and hate speech, hence which leads to disagreements about what should be censored.

Automated systems for detecting malicious content can struggle with context, causing both false positives and negatives.

Balance of Freedom of Speech and Regulation: in order to maintain a balance between freedom to speak freely and to keep your views and opinions openly amidst the society and to regulate malicious content is a major challenge. Over-regulation can restrain the fundamental right of speech and expression, while under-regulation can grant malicious content to flourish of.

Approaches to Address the Issue:

Manage contents by intermediary Platforms: Social media companies have adopted a variety of content moderation strategies, including AI-based algorithms, human moderators, and user reporting mechanisms.

Transparency in moderation policies and processes is essential to ensure accountability and trust.

Legal regulations: Governments has developed and implemented various laws such as cyber security, IT rules, to address online misinformation and hate speech. These laws differ widely from country to country, reflecting different cultural and legal standards of freedom of speech and expression.

Cooperation between countries can help create more consistent and effective approaches to regulation.

Media Literacy and Public Awareness: Education plays a vital role in an individuals life and it is very important to educate the public so they can critically examine the source of information and can verify whether the information is misleading or hate speech.

Promoting media literacy and awareness among public can empower people to make relevant and judicious decisions regarding the content they consume and share.

A Technical Solution: technological advancements, such as machine learning and natural language processing, can help to improve the detection and mollification of malicious content.

However, these techniques must be refined regularly to address evolving tactics used by those spreading misinformation and hate speech.

Cooperation of interrelated Stakeholders: Governments, tech companies, civil society, and academia must work together to develop comprehensive strategies to address these challenges.

CONCLUSION

In today’s world fake news spreads as forest fire through digital means such as Whatsapp, snapchat, Instagram, twitter, and facebook. People are using these digital platforms for sharing information without even checking the source and creditability of such information. AI is being used to misrepresent a person’s identity and morphed photographs are being uploaded on these social media platforms in order to harm the integrity of other individual. Government must take serious actions in order to suppress such malicious acts and in order to protect an individuals privacy and integrity.

By combining regulatory measures, technological innovations, public education, and collaborative initiatives, society can navigate the challenges of the digital landscape and preserve the values of open and respectful communication.

 


[1] Nikara Leisha Fernandez, ‘Freedom of Speech and Expression in the Digital Era’, (iPleaders , 18 February 2022)

[2] Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Private Ltd. And Ors. V. Union of India (UOI) and Ors (1986) SCC (1) 259

[3] Shreya Singhal v. Union of India (2013)12 SCC 73

[4] Information Technology Act, 2000, no.21 , India Code (2000).

[5] Times Now, ‘Poonam Pandey killed herself for publicity’ (Times Now, 10 June 2, http://www.timesnownews.com/entertainment-news/bollywood/poonam-pandey-killed-herself-for publicity-article-107360723 (last visited June 23,2024).

[6] Romesh Thappar v. The State of Madras (1950) AIR 124 (SC).

[7] INDIA Constitution, art. 19(1)(a)

[8] PRESS INFORMATION BUREAU, GOVERNMENT OF INDIA, http://pib.gov.in/PressReleaseDetailm.apsx?PRID=1635206 (last visited June 23, 2024).

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