A proposed amendment to Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 (IT Rules) suggests that any content "identified as fake or false" by the Press Information Bureau's (PIB) fact-check unit must be taken down.
What does the amendment propose? The amendment states that any intermediary – including news organisations, publishers, social media and online gaming platforms – must make efforts "not to host, display, upload, modify, publish, transmit, store, update or share" content that may "deceive or mislead" the recipient, with respect to the origin or veracity of the information in the message.
It mentioned that information marked as "fake or misleading" by PIB's fact-check unit, or any agency "authorised by the Central Government for fact-checking" would need to be taken down.
The proposed amendment also includes online gaming within its ambit.
The language of this draft notification shows that the power of deeming content as "fake" may not be restricted to PIB in the future. The Centre may authorise any of its agencies to do the same, which will look at any content related to "any business of the Centre."
What is PIB fact-check?: PIB launched it's fact-checking division in December 2019, which has verified accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Telegram and Instagram.
According to it's social media bio description, it aims to counter misinformation on government policies and schemes.
But the core principles of the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) requires fact-checking groups to maintain "a commitment to non-partisanship and fairness,” but PIB has not always exhibited these traits.
The Editors Guild of India said it was "deeply concerned" with the suggestions of the draft amendment.
"At the outset, determination of fake news cannot be in the sole hands of the government and will result in the censorship of the press," it read.
The statement voiced its concern about the proposal making it "easier to muzzle the free press," saying that it would give PIB sweeping powers to "force online intermediaries" to remove content that the government "may find problematic."
Calling on the Ministry of Information and Electronics Technology to remove this amendment, it stated that the move would "stifle legitimate criticism of the government" and adversely impact the press which holds the government accountable.
The bone of contention: The PIB's fact-checking division routinely debunks mis- or disinformation targeting government's schemes or policies, and does this while offering no and minimal context to its fact-check.
In May 2020, Newslaundry listed a host of social media posts and news articles that PIB's fact-checking unit had "debunked."
But in these instances, their fact-checks were not based in facts and were mere denials, the report said.
The Quint's WebQoof team too, has debunked PIB's fact-checks on multiple occasions.
In January 2022, PIB issued a fact-check which mentioned that Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had not made a certain statement about inflation affecting the "rich more than the poor," which contradicted the ministry's own monthly report.
On the other hand, the division has also worked to inform people about fraudulent websites and WhatsApp forwards.
These corrections issued by a verified government source have aided in combating misleading information on a large scale, especially when it comes to claims about the government giving out monetary aid under its schemes.
Recently, PIB tweeted about one such fraudulent website which claimed to be that of the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) that asked students appearing for their class 10 and 12 board exams to pay registration fees.