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Here’s what the world is doing to tackle fake news. India can learn

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A guide for existing attempts to legislate against what can broadly be referred to as online misinformation.

This article was originally published in Poynter

In mid-March, a European Commission high level group published its final report on misinformation, drawing upon the input of experts from around the world who gathered over several weeks to help the European Union figure out what to do about fake news.

The report created by the high-level group — announced in November to help the EU craft policies to address growing concern about misinformation in Europe — contains an inclusive, collaborative approach to addressing misinformation around the world (Disclosure: Poynter attended the meetings as one of the experts).

The report, while imperfect, explicitly recommends not regulating against misinformation — but the EU is only one of many governing bodies that have sought to stem the flow of online misinformation over the past few months.

Spanning from Brazil to South Korea, these efforts raise questions about infringing free speech guarantees and are frequently victims of uncertainty. The muddying of the definition of fake news, the relative reach of which is still being studied, hinders governments’ ability to accomplish anything effective.

In the spirit of this confusion, explained in detail in a recent Council of Europe report, Poynter has created a guide for existing attempts to legislate against what can broadly be referred to as online misinformation. While not every law contained here relates to fake news specifically, they’ve all often been wrapped into that broader discussion. We have attempted to label different interventions as clearly as possible.


Action: Law

Focus: Fake news

On June 14, lawmakers passed controversial amendments to Belarus’ media laws that allow the government to prosecute people who spread false information online.

One lawmaker said the legislation, which also allows for social media and other websites to be blocked if found in violation of the law, is aimed at bolstering citizens’ rights while also strengthening state information security.

On June 8, the Committee to Protect Journalists came out against the legislation, saying that it — in addition to separate legislation that aims to tighten Belarusian media regulations — could lead to more selective prosecution of journalists. According to Freedom House, the country already has no press freedom.


Action: Expert group and informational website

Focus: Misinformation

In early May, Belgian Minister for the Digital Agenda Alexander De Croo announced two initiatives aimed at curbing the spread of misinformation online.

First, the government established an expert group of journalists and scholars to come up with potential solutions by June 25. Second, it launched a website to inform people about misinformation and implement a Reddit style of upvoting and downvoting proposed solutions from the government. A public debate also took place in Brussels on May 17.


Action: Proposed government task force and 20 draft bills

Focus: Election-related misinformation

The Federal Police’s announcement of a task force to “identify and punish the authors of ‘fake news’” first in the form of a tweeted statement Jan. 9.

That move mainly targets fake news stories dealing with October’s presidential election and echoes French President Emmanuel Macron’s own effort to curtail electoral misinformation. Agência Pública has also collected, 20 draft bills in the Brazilian Congress as of May 11 aimed at criminalizing the distribution of fake news online ahead of the election.

The penalties range from fines starting at R$1,500 ($400) to up to eight years of in prison for crimes ranging from spreading fake news on social media to publishing inaccurate press accounts.

Despite the intense interest, what legislation will actually look like is still unclear. Lawmakers disagree over who should be punished for the dissemination of fake news — creators, sharers or content providers. The bills also vary in terms of which parts of the law they propose to alter.


Action: Law

Focus: Fake news

Cambodia expanded its crackdown on fake news in the weeks leading up to the country’s late July election.

In May, the government passed a measure that gave it the authority to block media that it thinks threatens national security. The new expansion of the law means people could be jailed for two years and fined $1,000 for publishing fake news. The Guardian reported that three ministries have been assigned to monitor social media posts for potential violations.

It’s still unclear how the government is defining fake news. Deutsche Welle reportedthat one spokesperson for the ruling party said the law would apply “to some media in which they use the wrong information.”


Action: Draft bill

Focus: Hate speech and fake news*

Borrowing from similar efforts in Germany, the Croatian government announced in January that it’s working on a law to halt the spread of hate speech and fake news on social media platforms.

The bill, which primarily takes aim at Facebook, endeavors to primarily educate citizens as opposed to sanctioning the spread of misinformation. While fact-checkers aren’t too sure about the specifics, experts say hate speech seems like a more natural area of regulation for lawmakers in Europe.

The draft bill is the product of a working group from the Central State Office for Digital Society, which concluded that hate speech, public incitement to violence and the spread of fake news should all be addressed in one law (only the first two are covered by the criminal code). The legislation is scheduled to be released by June.

*This law does not have enforceable mechanisms to combat fake news, as others have reported.


Action: Task force and brochures

Focus: Misinformation and media literacy

Taking a page from Sweden’s playbook in the fight against misinformation, the Danish government has set up a task force for addressing misinformation.

The group, which formed in September, is responsible for developing responses to widespread misinformation campaigns and foreign disinformation attacks. A task force within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was also set up to discover new pieces of misinformation online, reported.

Last month, Danish authorities bolstered their efforts to get ahead of misinformation problems by repurposing some media literacy material from Sweden. The government is distributing brochures with tips on how to avoid falling for misinformation.


Action: Law

Focus: Fake news

The Egyptian government is now regulating social media accounts with large followings in an attempt to cut down on misinformation.

Under the law, which passed in mid-July, any account or blog with more than 5,000 followers on sites like Facebook and Twitter will be treated like a media outlet, which — under the country’s existing laws — can be prosecuted for publishing “fake news.” The Supreme Council for the Administration of the Media will oversee the legislation’s enforcement.

In addition to punishing those who publish false information, the law requires websites to obtain a license from the Supreme Council or face suspension, fines or getting blocked altogether. The legislation, which doesn’t define fake news, was approved after consultation with journalists and other experts, Reuters reported.

While supporters of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi say the new law safeguards freedom of expression, detractors point to Egypt’s penchant for jailing journalists on “fake news” charges as an indicator that it’s just a media censorship tactic. The country has no press freedom, according to Freedom House.


Action: Bill

Focus: Election misinformation

In early January, President Macron told journalists that he would be presenting a new law to fight the spread of fake news during elections.

The proposed law, which was ready for presentation in mid-February, will create new legislation to give authorities the power to remove fake content spread via social media and even block the sites that publish it, as well as enforce more financial transparency for sponsored content, up to five months before election periods. That builds upon an 1881 law that outlaws the dissemination of “false news.”

The law, a draft of which Le Monde procured in early March, contains three major provisions. First, the Superior Audiovisual Council, France’s media regulator, will be permitted to fight against “any attempt at destabilization” from TV stations controlled by foreign states — an indirect reference to Russian outlets such as RT. The body would have the power to suspend or revoke certain media from those outlets that are deemed to be false.

Second, platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube will be required to publish who has purchased sponsored content or campaign ads and for what price. That component takes a page from the United States’ Honest Ads legislation, which applies existing standards for TV and radio stations to social media. And finally, the law enables citizens to procure summary rules from judges on what is and isn’t fake news to stop its spread.

After the French Constitutional Council published its opinion on the law May 4, the Cultural Affairs Committee of Parliament debated and amended the text to target the “manipulation of information” instead of “fake news.” The change reportedly protects satire from penalization under the regulation.

French lawmakers debated the proposed law on June 7, and it passed in early July. During election periods, the legislation will allow candidates to sue for the removal of contested news stories, Politico reported, and tech platforms will have to disclose the funding sources for sponsored content.


Actions: Hate speech law

Focus: Hate speech*

Having gone into effect Jan. 1, Germany’s law against hate speech on Facebook is perhaps the most realized — but often misunderstood — effort to quell potentially harmful content online.

The law, titled “Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz” (NetzDG), forces online platforms to remove “obviously illegal” posts within 24 hours or risk fines of up to €50 million. Aimed at social networks with more than 2 million members — such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter — the law was passed in June 2017 and gave platforms until the end of the year to prepare for the regulation.

The law’s implementation points to the Bundestag’s willingness to move against questionable online content, but its enforcement has been rocky. A satirical magazine called Titanic published a piece with insults and was banned from Twitter, and even the minister of justice — who helped author the NetzDG — had his tweets censored.

In early March, officials considered revising the law following criticism that too much content was being blocked. Among those revisions includes allowing users to get incorrectly deleted content restored, as well as pushing social media companies to set up independent bodies to review questionable posts.

*This law does not have enforceable mechanisms to combat fake news, as others have reported.


Action: Database and proposed state law

Focus: Fake news

A state government in India is considering creating legislation aimed at punishing purveyors of online misinformation — specifically doctored photographs.

The Economic Times reported in mid-June that West Bengal officials want to clarify how the state could additionally prosecute the publication of misinformation. Currently, citizens can be jailed in the state for posting fake news if it causes fear or alarm in the public.

In addition to bolstering existing law, West Bengal has been preparing a database of fake news stories distributed on social media over the past few years. It has also kept records of past offenders, The Times reported.

The efforts come amid rising tensions related to misinformation in India. Rumors on messaging platforms like WhatsApp have allegedly incited violence across the country and the national government itself has tried to issue anti-fake news guidelines in the past.


Actions: Government agencyarrests and site tracking

Focus: Misinformation

In January, President Joko Widodo appointed a head of the newly formed National Cyber and Encryption Agency to help intelligence agencies and law enforcement efforts combat online misinformation and hoaxes before nationwide regional polls this summer.

Reuters reported that the agency was hiring hundreds of people to “provide protection” to institutions online. While it’s still unclear what authority the body has, other agencies have arrested alleged perpetrators of online misinformation. The government has also been blocking websites that publish content deemed to be harmful for society.

The Jakarta Post reported that social media companies are also working with the government to block and remove fake content, as well as illegal media such as pornography. In late January, the government also deployed a tool that allegedly automatically tracks and reports sites publishing fake news.


Action: Bill

Focus: Political bots and advertising*

Lawmakers introduced a bill in early December that would make using a bot to create multiple fake accounts posing as different people spreading political messages a criminal offense.

According to the bill, using a bot to create 25 or more personas on social media would be punishable by up to five years in prison or fines of up to €10,000. The legislation also takes a page from the Honest Ads bill proposed in the U.S. Congress, eliciting widespread coverage as a law condemning all misinformation — an error in nuance that even Poynter made.

The ruling party, which opposes the bill, lost a vote in parliament in mid-December and it has moved on to the committee stage, where it’s unlikely to progress further.

*This law does not deal directly with fake news, as others have reported.


Action: Online reporting portal

Focus: Fake news

A little more than a month before the general election, the Italian government announced Jan. 18 that it had set up an online portal where citizens could report fake news to the police.

The service, which prompts users for their email addresses, a link to the fake news and any social media networks they saw it on, ferries reports to the Polizia Postale, a unit of the state police that investigates cyber crime. The department will fact-check them and — if laws were broken — pursue legal action. At the very least, the service will draw upon official sources to deny false or misleading information.

That plan came amid a national frenzy over fake news leading into the March 4 election and suffered from the same vagueness as the ones in Brazil, Croatia and France: a lacking definition of what constitutes “fake news.”


Action: Law

Focus: Fake news

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta signed a bill May 16 criminalizing 17 different types of cybercrimes, including cyberbullying, espionage and computer forgery. And fake news made the cut.

Under the law, people who knowingly share false or misleading information in an attempt to make it look real can be fined up to 5,000,000 shilling (nearly $50,000) or imprisoned for up to two years. Before Kenyatta signed the bill, there were calls for Parliament to review it to make sure it didn’t violate free speech provisions.

On May 10, the Committee to Protect Journalists came out against this law, saying that it would “criminalize free speech, with journalists and bloggers likely to be among the first victims.”


Action: Law

Focus: Fake news

Malaysia made it a crime to share fake news in early April. The law, which both houses of the Malaysian government passed, outlaws fake news going into an August election.

It makes publishing or sharing fake news punishable by up to six years in jail and a fine of 500,000 ringgit ($128,000). It also makes online service providers more responsible for third-party content, affects foreign news outlets reporting on Malaysia and anyone can lodge a complaint against an alleged purveyor of misinformation. Representatives from social media companies like Facebook and Google met with lawmakers in Kuala Lumpur in mid-March to get their views on the law.

The opposition argues the government’s definition of what constitutes fake news — “any news, information, data and reports which are wholly or partly false, whether in the form of features, visuals or audio recordings or in any other form capable of suggesting words or ideas” — is too vague and that the law is an effort to stifle free speech ahead of the August election.

In late April, the first person arrested under the law was a Danish citizen for “inaccurate criticism of police on social media,” Reuters reported. He posted a YouTube video accusing Malaysian officials of taking 50 minutes to respond to a shooting on April 21, which police said actually took eight minutes.

Malaysia’s new prime minister indicated in mid-May that he intends for the law to stay, albeit with a clearer definition of fake news. However, on May 22, the country’s new communications and multimedia minister said the law will be repealed, and in late June, the new government appeared to be seeking to repeal the law by the summer.


Action: Media literacy campaign

Focus: Media literacy

In response to growing concerns and tensions related to misinformation, Nigeria has launched a campaign aimed at making people more critical news consumers.

The Premium Times reported the information minister, Lai Mohammed, is planning collaborations with digital and print media, as well as the National Orientation Agency, to teach Nigerians how to tell what’s real and fake online. Mohammed said the government wouldn’t resort to “coercion or censorship.”

The Philippines

Action: Dismissed bill

Focus: Misinformation

In February, the chair of the Senate’s Committee on Public Information and Mass Media filed a bill that would hold government officials accountable for spreading false information.

However, the measure was challenged as unconstitutional, and President Rodrigo Duterte has said in the past that such a law would never pass. Duterte has used the term “fake news” as an epithet for media outlets he dislikes, and even has been accused of spreading misinformation himself.


Action: Bill

Focus: Fake news

In the midst of heated discussions about the role of the Russian government in propagating misinformation around the world, the country has introduced its own anti-fake news bill.

The New York Times reported that the legislation, which lawmakers from the ruling United Russia party submitted in mid-July, would hold social networks accountable for inaccurate comments that users post. Websites that have a commenting feature and amass more than 100,000 visitors every day will be required to remove false comments within 24 hours or be fined up to 50 million rubles (about $800,000).

The legislation has passed one of three votes in parliament, The Times reported. Social media platforms say they can’t possibly weed out every false comment on a daily basis, and critics say the law gives Russia — which Freedom House says has no press freedom— more censorship capabilities.


Action: Parliamentary committee

Focus: Fake news

In January, Parliament voted to create a committee focused on addressing how best to address the problem of fake news online. Idea submissions from journalists, advocacy groups and others were made public in February.

In March, the government held an eight-day hearing on “deliberate online falsehoods.” It is now working to create a report and potential legislation on the issue — but it’s reportedly in no rush to do so.

South Korea

Actions: Government task force and proposed amendments

Focus: Misinformation

The National Assembly has more than a dozen pending amendments aimed at curbing the effect of misinformation online — about half of which call on platforms to self-regulate false content. One would criminalize the use of bots to manipulate online commenting.

At the same time, the ruling party has used a fake news countermeasure task force to file about 500 complaints against people allegedly publishing problematic content.


Action: Committee recommendation

Focus: Fake news

In early March, the National Security Commission of the Congress of Deputies passed a proposal asking the government to take action against fake news online.

In the non-binding recommendation, the committee requested that the government cooperate with the EU in developing strategies against misinformation. The proposal was voted down by the left-wing coalition.


Action: Proposed government authority

Focus: Foreign disinformation campaigns

Ahead of this fall’s general election, Prime Minister Stefan Löfven announced a new “psychological defense” authority in mid-January aimed at countering disinformation and foreign influence campaigns.

Building off both the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency and the parliamentary Defense Commission, the authority would “ensure that factual public information can be quickly and effectively communicated even under disruptive conditions, as well as identify, analyze and confront influencing operations.”

On the whole, Sweden’s proposed authority has a different flavor than those in other countries; rather than attempting to directly fight false or misleading information, it instead is aimed at promoting factual content. A start date for the body has not yet been set.


Action: Bill

Focus: Fake news

Taiwanese lawmakers are considering adding a clause to the state’s Social Order Maintenance Act that criminalizes the spread of fake news.

Under the new law, which the ruling Democratic Progressive Party introduced in early June, people who publish misinformation online could be punished by up to three days in jail or a fine of up to $30,000 New Taiwan dollars (US$1,000). The existing regulation already imposes fines and prison time for anyone who spreads rumors.

In mid-June, the bill was assigned to a committee for review and consultation with experts and stakeholders. CPJ reported the bill could be back in parliament for readings in mid-September.


Action: Blog licensing

Focus: Media regulation*

Tanzania is taking advantage of growing concern about online misinformation to levy new regulations against online publishers.

The Financial Times reported that the government plans to charge bloggers about $920 a year for the privilege of publishing online — in a country with a nominal per capita income of less than $900.

The Tanzanian government says the move is an effort to curtail lies online by passing costs on to publishers. The High Court paused the May 5 implementation after activists and media outlets challenged it, but it later passed.

Violators will be fined a minimum of five million Tanzanian shillings (US $2,202), jailed for no less than a year or both. The Verge reported that the law has already discouraged many young content creators to go offline.

*This law does not address fake news directly, as others have reported.


Action: Social media tax

Focus: Internet regulation*

A new tax in Uganda that charges citizens for the ability to use social media platforms went into effect July 1.

The tax, which President Yoweri Museveni introduced in May reportedly to cut down on the spread of gossip, is primarily aimed at creating another revenue stream for the government. The government — which shut down social media during the 2016 election — is charging mobile phone users 200 Ugandan shillings ($0.05) for using platforms like WhatsApp, Viber, Twitter, and Skype. Museveni compared the platforms to commodities like alcohol and tobacco.

While it’s still unclear how the government is going to detect when users log into social media accounts and then tax them, critics say the law is an attempt to co-opt concerns about misinformation to further regulate free speech. Uganda has partial press freedom, according to Freedom House.

*This does not directly address fake news, as others have reported.

United Kingdom

Action: Proposed government unit

Focus: Foreign disinformation campaigns*

Among the most vague attempts to counter the spread of misinformation is the U.K. government’s decision to set up the National Security Communications Unit.

The unit, tasked with “combating disinformation by state actors and others,” comes amid an investigation of Russia’s reported use of fake social media accounts to spread misinformation about the Brexit referendum in summer 2016. While details are scant, The Conversation reported that the initiative echoes a Cold War-era tactic.

*This unit does not deal specifically with fake news, as others have reported.

United States

Actions: Proposed lawplatform testimonies and proposed state advisory group

Focus: Political ads*, Russian disinformation and fake news

Confirmed by intelligence agencies, Russian meddling on social media during the 2016 U.S. presidential election has resulted in several piecemeal actions from the federal government.

First, Congress announced a bill in October that would require online platforms such as Facebook and Google to keep copies of ads, make them public and keep tabs on who is paying — and how much. Essentially, the legislation attempts to impose existing TV and radio ad regulations on social media companies.

Then, in November, representatives from Facebook, Twitter and Google testified to a Senate judiciary committee on their role in spreading disinformation during the election. During that meeting, there was broad consensus that Russia did manipulate their platforms, but the platforms projected an appearance of control when it comes to monitoring fake accounts and ad buyers.

Finally, the California Senate is weighing whether or not to create an advisory group aimed at monitoring the spread of misinformation on social media and coming up with potential solutions. The proposed bill would require the state attorney general to create the group — which would include social media companies, NGOs and First Amendment scholars — by April 2019.

*These efforts don’t directly address fake news, as others have reported.

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