Regulate when social media turns unsocial

   Asia News Network commentators call for measures to prevent spread of unverified information on social media.
Asia News Network commentators call for measures to prevent spread of unverified information on social media.PHOTO: REUTERS

Asia News Network commentators call for measures to prevent spread of unverified information.

Be responsible on social media

Editorial

The Star, Malaysia

One can almost understand why the Pakatan Harapan (PH) administration keeps dialling back on some of its pre-election promises of protecting free speech.

Almost.

There was the failed attempt to repeal the Fake News Act (although admittedly, this move was defeated at the Senate level), and in the last few months, a renewed drive to bring to book anyone accused of insulting race, religion or the royals.

One man has been slapped with a 10-year-plus jail sentence for insulting Islam and the Prophet Muhammad on Facebook.

A harsh sentence, but we're pretty sure that when most Malaysians read about social media users insulting other races and religions (or the royal institution, our first thought is: "What is wrong with you?"

Then there is the issue of the fireman, the forensic expert and the nurse.

Dr Ahmad Hafizam Hasmi from Kuala Lumpur hospital testified in the inquest into the death of firefighter Muhammad Adib Mohd Kassim that the latter's injuries could not have come from assault.

However, National Heart Institute (IJN) nurse Siti Syafika Amira Mohd Rasani called him a liar and accused him of a cover-up.

In a post on her Facebook on March 22, under the name "Cik Miera", she claimed she helped treat Muhammad Adib when he first came to IJN, and that his injuries obviously came from being beaten up.

Her post went viral and fed into the racial narrative tinderbox that had been simmering since the riot at the Seafield Sri Maha Mariamman Temple in Subang Jaya on Nov 27 last year, where Muhammad Adib met his death.

It took the efforts of Kangar MP Noor Amin Ahmad, who politely urged her to testify in the inquest, for Siti Syafika to back down from her serious allegations.

 

In the end, she did testify at the inquest - to apologise to the forensic experts for her defamatory statement, saying she was too emotionally distraught over what the fireman's family went through.

It is hard to see why compassion and empathy would drive one to post fake news on social media. After all, wouldn't this merely add to the family's distress and grief?

Still, that's what too many Malaysians - too many people around the world, really - think about the digital world of the Internet, social media, messaging apps and the like: That it is distinct from the real world, an otherworldly construct where the usual rules do not apply and you can get away with anything.

That you can adopt a "digital persona" that is unlike your real-world person.

You can't. Not any longer.

The lines have blurred - as had been predicted in the field of science-fiction over the last couple of decades, the digital world has become fully entwined with the real world. They now "cohabitate".

If you are a liar in the digital world, you're not trustworthy in the real world.

If you're a jerk on social media - even if under the guise of playing devil's advocate - then people will consider you one in real life too.

This is why savvy human resources people trawl job applicants' digital footprint: they want to know what kind of a person you are. Your social media posts are a window into who you really are.

So stop this. Don't spread information without first verifying it.

Click and read that article instead of just basing all your thoughts on the headline. Gather your information from trusted sites.

Challenge your WhatsApp contacts: Where did you get this information from? Did you verify it? Why are you sharing it if you're not sure it's true?

Because if you don't, you're just giving the current government excuses to impose even greater restrictions.

For every step forward the Pakatan administration takes, we the people force it to take two steps back.

Be more responsible on social media. Our country needs it, democracy demands it.

Social media and Indian national elections

Pallab Bhattacharya

The Daily Star, Bangladesh

The drawing up of a "Voluntary Code of Ethics" by social media giants like Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and ShareChat and their intermediaries for the coming parliamentary elections in India is a landmark decision in more ways than one.

The Code was submitted to the Election Commission (EC) on March 21, a day after an interaction between the social media platforms and the Internet and Mobile Association of India.

Behind the Indian EC's move to convene the meeting with the social media platforms and the intermediaries was apparently the US intelligence agencies' finding that Russia had meddled in the US Presidential election in 2017, with a campaign of email hacking and online propaganda aimed at hurting Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and helping Donald Trump, an issue that continues to roil American politics even today.

The development is important for two reasons: first, this is the first time such a Code has been worked out in India for the social media sector, and secondly, it was the only media space that has remained outside the purview of the Representation of People Act of 1951 which covers the print and electronic media.

There is no disputing the need for some kind of regulation of the social media which has gained popularity and importance because it provides much easier access to the people than the conventional media world.

The sources of information through the social media platforms are a lot more varied than the print and audio-visual media, and the mechanism for checking the authenticity of that information is much more restricted compared to the traditional newsrooms.

In newsrooms, a reporter is accountable to the Editor for the information he has collected, but the person who uploads or circulates a piece of information on the social media is not subjected to any check and is not accountable to anyone.

This clearly poses a great risk of fake news and rumours being passed off as "genuine" information. This is where one of the key components of the Code of Ethics is expected to play an important role.

As per that Code, any content that breaches electoral law and the Election Commission's Model Code of Conduct will be pulled down by the social media outlets within three hours of its being uploaded.

But concerns remain.

The three-hour time lag is enough to do the damage if the information happens to be sensitive and has the potential to hit the level playing field sought to be provided by the EC for the polls.

We have seen in the past how violence is fuelled by rumours on the social media.

A committee set up by the EC had submitted its report in January this year calling for intermediaries sending transparency reports to the poll body as also to ensure accountability.

The regional-language social media platform is reportedly working on a fact-checking agency to curb fake news.

Another key element of the Code of Ethics is the commitment given by the social media platforms to provide a mechanism for political advertisers to submit pre-certified advertisements issued by EC's Media Certification and Monitoring Committee, and the code of ethics also promises to facilitate transparency in paid political advertisements.

Equally important in the Code is that a notification mechanism has been developed through which EC can inform relevant social media platforms of potential violations of Section 126 of the Representation of the People Act, 1951 which relates no campaigning in the 48 hours leading to the polling.

While the Election Commission is right to favour self-regulation by the social media carrying information in the run up to and during the elections, it faces the twin challenges of ensuring a level playing field for all players and at the same time ensuring freedom of expression without appearing to be overbearing.

But the efficacy of the Code of Ethics will largely depend on the coordination and communication synergy between the Commission and the social media outlets, given the enormous volume of content uploaded by users.

That is a challenge for both the EC and the social media platforms.

The Code of Ethics may not be a foolproof arrangement. That is why Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora rightly pointed out that the Code should not be considered as the be-all or end-all of regulation and it is a "work-in-progress" which means it is a continuous process.

But the good sign is that a beginning has been made and it needs to be carried forward. The need for check and balance cannot be overstated at a time when the Indian polity is showing signs of high degree of polarisation and a part of it is reflected on the war of words in the social media.

As election dates draw near, this may tend to border on frenzy.

But the question that arises is: will the Code of Ethics be limited to the general elections or can it be taken beyond?

The Chief Election Commissioner hinted at taking a much longer perspective when he said, during his interaction with the representatives of social media platforms and the intermediaries, that the Code would be used in the immediate context of poll and perhaps even after that.

This is a good suggestion that needs to be debated in a country where state-level assembly polls are a regular feature.

Online freedom

Omer Imran Malik

Dawn, Pakistan

Social media networks have proved to be excellent habitats for the culture of fake news, online hate speech and cyber bullying. There is a global call for state regulation of social media networks to combat these ills.

In legal terms, the identified methods of state regulation of free speech can be classified under two models: prior restraint and subsequent punishment.

Briefly, the prior restraint model envisages a preventative system in which the state restrains illegal and unprotected speech considered harmful to society even before it is uttered or published.

This can be achieved by the state establishing licensing authorities, a content oversight mechanism, procedural rules, barriers of entry for news and media organisations, etc.

The subsequent punishment model simply evolves from the deterrence doctrine of the law - the state sets up penalties and other civil liabilities for illegal speech and punishes the perpetrators after the judicial determination of the nature of the speech. This model aims to deter people from abusing the right to freedom of speech through the possibility of facing criminal and/or civil liability.

If speech needs be regulated, it should be by judicial determination.

Many nations recognise that the prior restraint model is excessive and repressive and should be used, if required, rarely.

Take the 'Southeastern Promotions' case in which the US supreme court held "a free society prefers to punish the few who abuse rights of speech after they break the law than to throttle them and all others beforehand".

In Pakistan, the federal government has floated a proposal to unite all media regulatory bodies into one body - the Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority (PMRA).

The government says that among the many roles and functions of this organisation, the PMRA is also to regulate online speech on social media, because the government believes that online journalism through social media is surpassing television and print journalism.

However, its proposed mechanism to regulate speech on social media through the PMRA is unimaginatively inspired by the same prior restraint mechanisms envisioned under the existing Pemra Ordinance to regulate television content.

Specifically, the PMRA aims to grant licences to social media journalists, without which one would not be able to publicly post news, opinions and other content of a public nature on their social media channels.

Many stakeholders have already expressed their concerns over this mechanism; they say that not only is it impossible to implement but that it is a covert attempt at censorship rather than regulation.

The federal government's approach deserves criticism on two major counts.

First, the prior restraint model is an obsolete mechanism to regulate free speech on social networks.

Advocate Salwa Rana working at Media Matters for Democracy states: "Licensing of social media actors is thoroughly impractical due to the fact that online blogs, forums, networks and websites can be operated by anyone from the general public at any time under the umbrella of citizen journalism.

Given the low cost of internet and smartphones, millions of Pakistanis use social media. Since each user is a potential citizen journalist, it is downright impossible and impractical for the government to register everyone."

Second, the employment of measures of prior restraint by the government to regulate social media through the proposed PMRA should also be discouraged because a licensing and censorship system which runs through executive officers without any judicial determination will become another tool for state repression and ultimately freeze free speech in Pakistan's online spaces.

If speech needs be regulated, it should be by judicial determination, and not executive decisions.

Also, the person accused of abusing the right to freedom of speech should be provided an opportunity to prove that the speech is protected under the Constitution.

The Supreme Court has previously held: "The freedom of expression includes the right to receive information through organs of public opinion and the freedom of press in its turn rests on the assumption that there is a wide dissemination of information. Such dissemination inevitably contemplates absence of restraints."

Rather than looking at methods to muzzle the voices of Pakistani netizens, the federal government should fund capacity-building measures in institutions (such as FIA and the courts) responsible for prosecuting illegal online speech so that it is dealt with judiciously and those who abuse this freedom are punished.

Similarly, combating fake news should be done through public information campaigns which sensitise the population on the need to fact-check their sources of online content. Measures such as these will ensure that our online spaces remain safe, and most importantly, continue to remain free.

The View From Asia is a compilation of articles from The Straits Times' media partner Asia News Network, a grouping of 23 news organisations.