The F-Factor In Farmers’ Protests: False News and Foreign Involvement in Indian Protests on Social Media

India’s Farmers’ Protests have been a rollercoaster ride — the higher it rose, the lower it seemed to go, owing to the controversies that surrounded it time and again. By the end of 2020, through the beginning of 2021, the protests only escalated, eventually to become the largest protests ever witnessed by the world. The coordinated protests all over the country soon crossed oceans to reach other continents, and gained the support of many. This support was extended through social media portals like Twitter, Facebook etc. It is through such social networking sites that the world was acquainted with the Farmers’ Protests. All this seems like the rollercoaster has escalated very high, only to experience a bumpy ride on the track of controversies. Meaning, the protests were fraught with challenges, starting from false news to propagation of biased or controversial narratives by news channels, journalists, politicians, influencers, celebrities, social activists etc. These events owe a detailed fact based analysis, through an administrative and legal lens. 

False Information During Protests

Misinformation is sometimes also spread unintentionally by news aggregators. This is done when, in the heat of the events, a piece of news is published by a news platform, without ensuring its credibility. While it continues to remain an absolute blot on the authenticity of the news media portals, some still go on to defend it by calling it a mistake made while trying to deliver news on-time. Such news, especially during protests, is capable of ensuing outrage owing to the fact that it is propagated during such a sensitive time. 

Legal Perspectives on Regulating Social Media and Fake News

Section 66A of the IT Act, 2000 enshrined a punishment for sending offensive messages through communication service, etc. 

Under this provision, any person who by means of a computer or communication device sends any information that is:

  1. Grossly offensive;
  2. False and meant for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred or ill will;
  3. Meant to deceive or mislead the recipient about the origin of such messages, etc, shall be punishable with imprisonment up to three years and with a fine. 

This section was repealed in the year 2015, on account of its ambiguity and unconstitutionality. Since the repeal of this Section, there remain no laws that explicitly mark repercussions for the spread of false news.

Some of the laws that may still be applied in such situations are:

  • Section 69A of the IT Act of 2000: This act enshrines the power of the Central Government to issue directions for blocking for public access of any information through any computer resource in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India. 

The use of this section has been extensive during the Farmers’ Protests. Savdhaan India’s narrator Sushant Singh was one such individual whose Twitter handle @sushant_says was withheld for spreading misinformation during the farmers’ protests.

This was done in response to legal demands of the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY). 

Twitter, on legal demand of the Central Ministry, banned or witheld multiple accounts reported to be inflaming tensions, or publishing false information regarding the Farmers’ Protests.

Amongst the several accounts available were the ones of political leaders, farmer leaders, socio-political individuals, news aggregators, journalists, etc. — sending out misinformed narratives, or passion-inciting content on the social media portal. Twitter even confirmed that it suspended about 250 accounts of people with posts related to the 72nd Republic Day violence who misused the portal to produce misinformation and violence.  All these actions have been taken with the backing of the section 69A of the IT Act, 2000. 

Recently, the government identified 1200 twitter accounts2 (as of 8th February 2021), based on the fear that these accounts are backed by foreign trouble inciting entities — propagating misinformation among people, through the social media platform. 

  • Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code of 1860: “Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards, the Government established by law in India, shall be punished with [various combinations of terms of imprisonment and/or fines].”

Though such provisions might deter potential hate inciting comments, it becomes highly difficult to differentiate the thin line between free Speech and hate-speech. Recently, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor as well as senior journalists Rajdeep Sardesai and Mrinal Pande posted “malafide, defamatory, false and misleading” tweets accusing the Delhi Police of killing a farmer during the Farmer Tractor Rally on the 72nd Republic Day.3 The misleading and fake news spread by the accused was capable of inciting violence in the already unstable environment. 

  • Multiple sections of different statutes were cited while registering the FIR against the aforementioned group. The police has invoked sections 153A (promoting enmity between different groups), 153B, 295A (malicious acts to outrage religious feelings), 298 (deliberate intent to wound religious feelings), 504, 506, 124A, 120B (criminal conspiracy) and Section 66 of the IT Act 2000.

Social Media Campaigns

Social media, the connecting thread of the whole world, has taken the Farmers’ protests to different countries. A recent six-worded tweet by Rihanna, a singer-businesswoman, received a host of reactions by journalists, politicians, common people, and even the Indian Government. The vague remarks by the celebrity invited criticism by the Government, owing to the gravity of the issue. The Ministry of External Affairs, said that the “temptation of sensationalist social media hashtags and comments” is neither accurate nor responsible. 

This incident was followed by a controversial tweet by the Climate activist, Greta Thunberg, who in an attempt to support the Farmers’ protest, posted a “Toolkit” laying down the methods to protest. The activist later deleted the toolkit, and said it was being “updated by the people on-ground”, and later uploaded the updated one. 

However, a section of the older toolkit suggested protests “near Indian Embassies, Government offices, Media houses (or even Adani-Ambani offices) globally” on January 26. This led the Delhi police into investigating the origin and the makers of the toolkit, in the apprehension of it being related to the Red Fort violence on 26th January, 2021. 

While some Indians supported Thunberg for posting the toolkit, it mostly led to a huge uproar online, with government officials and police criticising it, and calling it an attempt to “create disharmony among various social, religious and cultural groups and encourage disaffection and ill-will against the (government) of India”. In no time, Twitter took a turn with its hashtags. Those in support had tweeted with #StandWithFarmers, while others staged an outrage with #IndiaAgainstPropaganda.

Only further investigations will tell if this toolkit was deliberately made to disturb peace and compromise on India’s sovereignty. Prima Facie the toolkit or the comments by the foreign activists, celebrities, etc. did not pose a threat to destabilize India. On the other hand, it only seemed to be a frank commentary by them. And as for the toolkit, it is contended that even during the anti-CAA protests, a toolkit suggesting Twitter hashtags to use, places to hold protests, and a guide on what to do and carry with you if you are detained by the police, was shared through personal messages on WhatsApp and on other social media.

Conclusion

Amidst the violence and the tear gas, many of us got blinded by the news served to us through social media portals. It is imperative, especially during the sensitive time of protests, to be conscious of the information we consume. Many news portals or social media handles serve news without rechecking its validity. Photos from old protests and doctored videos are abundant during such times, which rapidly spread like infernos, through social media. 

The spread of fake news by influencers or the general public has become so rampant, that the only remedy we can rely on for a check on them, are the private channels that conduct “fact-checks”, ironically, which too sometimes cannot be relied on due to the same channels’ fake-news history. This poses a question, if India should consider making a law that explicitly addresses the problem of propagating false news via any media portal. This may be done to reinstate the credibility and trust of the public in the media. Otherwise, amidst the rat-race of likes, retweets, popularity, and user-traffic on websites, individuals and media channels will continue to publish false information in the name of ‘a mistake’ done in goodwill to ensure the news reaches the public on-time. 

Individuals should also beware of extremist views, the ‘popular opinion’, misleading hashtags, celebrity influence, and avoid any uncalculated action as a reaction to any of the above. Today, any protest, local or global, is open for discussion globally via social media portals. While everyone has a right to speak about world occurrences, readers must be cautious of the source of the information. Hence online activism can have its benefits as well as well its observed repercussions. It is the combined duty of the governments, the social media portals, and the users to co-operate and bust any attempt of misuse of such platforms.



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Kirit P. Mehta School of Law Publications