By Sidra Javed, Third year law student, Amity Law School, AUUP
Information is non-exclusive. Certain factors such as copyright, paywalls, corporate and official confidentiality, or direct censorship can create restrictions. Still, information consumed by one person does not hinder another person from consuming it. Information presented as a public good has the potential for public access. It allows us to know our rights and privileges and contributes to the general public interest.
The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated how crucial free access to reliable information can be. In a crisis such as this, it wouldn’t be an understatement to say that information can be a matter of life and death. Conversely, disinformation has speedily increased and it fuels various risks, including, at the present, the risk to public health. Further, it reinforces other challenges such as socio-economic disparity, gender bias, and inequalities of all forms.
Therefore, it is important to address the situation of free flow of information while keeping a check on disinformation and the knowledge which needs to be both accessed and resisted.
INFORMATION DURING A PANDEMIC: HOW CRUCIAL?
Social Value of Public Information
A person who has to choose in uncertain circumstances can be better equipped to do so when they have greater access to information. To the extent that a choice is made by a person exclusive of others, more information is generally beneficial. Greater provision of public information always increases welfare.
Significant technological advancements have improved people’s ability to communicate and access knowledge. Especially as people access information through social media networks, news media output (whether in print, television, or radio, analog or distributed via digital platforms) remains a powerful source of information. Through making an overwhelming and highly nuanced network of knowledge more available, making scientific evidence clear to the general public, providing constantly updated data, and participating in fact-checking, media has, all over the world, greatly added to our understanding of the pandemic.
Social Media: A Helpline during the Pandemic
The communications revolution has the potential to deliver public health information to everyone without the need for government, professional organizations, or healthcare systems to intervene. Furthermore, information technology may improve the efficiency of a variety of health-related programs, including primary education, health information, disease control, management information systems, and health research.
India is still fighting the deadly second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. During the past few months, social media, a much-debated form of digital media, has emerged as a savior during these times of immense distress. From sharing availability of beds, oxygen cylinders, blood and plasma donors, and necessary drugs and medicines to food and other daily services, people have employed social media to help citizens across the country. These platforms are flooded with posts, stories, tweets, and shares when necessities, especially medical, run scarce.
If information never before appeared to be a public good or appeared to function as a public good, it evidently does now. India witnessed the worst surge in the number of cases of COVID-19. It was no surprise that the country’s health care system was overwhelmed with the daily count in cases going beyond 4 lakhs and the number of deaths at an all-time high. Information flowed freely through the grassroots networks created by people from all over the country, who stepped in when those elected to prevent and protect did not.
The ease of accessing and delivering information in this age has saved lives. The unrestricted access has enabled immense help for some people in their greatest hour of need by strangers. The rise of a pluralistic media environment, significant technological advances, free and independent journalism, and the right to information has primarily contributed to producing information for the service of humanity. The increasingly digital communication sphere has attributed to an escalation and expansion in information and its identification as a public good.
MISINFORMATION AND DATA SUPPRESSION
Spreading Misinformation: Mass Panic and Uncertainty
The pandemic in India resulted in widespread panic thereby resulting in rapidly increasing false information regarding COVID-19. Misinformation related to the virus spread faster than the virus itself. From people claiming that a few drops of lemon in the nose will cure a person from the coronavirus to turning to the black market for lifesaving drugs and unproven medical treatments, social media has aided them all.
The pandemic induced billions of people inside their homes and as schedules and routines began to vanish, the ‘digital screen time’ increased. With most of the information consumption now being online or digital, the excess of this information consumption elevated the panic and uncertainty that already existed.
The spread of an outbreak and the consequent human behavior can be significantly influenced by the flow and accessibility of information. During COVID-19, the level of media panic, the volume of media consumption, and the resulting change in public attitude were all important factors, especially because the modern world was unprepared for such a large-scale biological calamity. A potential admixture of information and ‘fake information’ constitute every bit of information, the major challenge being disentangling both separately.
Legal Implications of Spreading ‘Fake News’ and Misinformation
Indian law is absent of any specific provision that deals with fake news. However, several offences in the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860, impose criminal liability on certain forms of speech that may refer to fake news and may also be applicable to digital content. These include the crimes of sedition and promoting enmity between different groups.
In its 267th Report, the Law Commission of India recommended addition of two new provisions in the IPC, 1860, to further discourage and curb hate speech. The provisions would potentially prohibit inciting hatred and speech that causes alarm, provocation of violence, or fear.
Further, Section 79 of the Information Technology Act, 2000, provides limited immunity to the intermediaries in case of any illegal content posted by third parties. The Information Technology (Intermediaries Guidelines), 2011, state that an intermediary has 36 hours to remove any illegal content posted on its site.
Regardless of any indirect provisions spread across a variety of Indian laws, it is necessary that specific laws and regulations are implemented targeting misinformation and hate speech to curtail both minimal and severe consequences of the same.
Data Suppression: Undercounting Deaths due to COVID-19
Rural India, at first, was believed to be less affected by the COVID-19 virus. However, those working at the grassroots level say otherwise. Blood samples collected in village Karandi (northeast of Pune) show that 40% of these villagers had antibodies for COVID-19. Data and information are vital to convincing policymakers that rural areas, too, require their attention and assistance. Further, studies like this also show whether the death toll is higher than what is released each day.
In the last week of April, several Indian researchers filed an Appeal to the Prime Minister of India to release what data the Government has and to collect more. Experts believe that even the number of COVID-19 cases being reported daily represents ‘only a fraction’ of what the actual figures could be. Bhramar Mukherjee, an epidemiologist at the University of Michigan says that the current situation is a ‘massacre of data’ and based on the modeling they have done, the current figures could be anywhere between 2 to 5 times than what is being reported.
The importance of accessing reliable information freely has been demonstrated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The availability and ease of accessing reliable public data have proven how information is a public good. At the same time, this availability and ease have also created a void for hateful content and misinformation. To reserve the status of information as a public good, it is important to identify and regulate certain trends, which contributes to the negation of this status.
The viability of free and independent journalism must be maintained. They have been severely hit by the public health crisis which renders them vulnerable to interfering by advertisers, and acquisitions by governments thereby affecting their independence. Social media companies must be held responsible for the information they display and distribute. They must be criticized and regulated for the astonishing volumes of disinformation that people engage with through these companies.
Promoting and encouraging ‘information as a public good’ is necessary and comes with a responsibility to exercise sound media and information skills and literacy. It renews the commitment to the freedom and right to information, the freedom of the press, and the freedom of expression while ensuring accountability and transparency of media outlets and internet companies.