Of Bandemics, Information Pollution and Keeping up with the COVID-actions

MisDisMal-Information Edition #9

What is this?This newsletter aims to track information disorder largely from an Indian perspective. It will also look at some global campaigns and research

What this is not?A fact-check newsletter. There are organisations like Altnews, Boomlive etc who already do some great work. It may feature some of their fact-checks periodically

Welcome to Edition #9 of MisDisMal-Information.

Keeping up with the COVID-actions... promised by platforms

Through June, Rohan Seth and I worked on a project trying to analyse what steps platforms had undertaken to address Information Disorder related to COVID-19. Around the time we were getting ready to publish it, we were given a gift by a certain yoga guru - in the form of a cure to COVID-19. Now, you obviously know what happened to that story - so I won't get into this supposed cure. But it did give us an opportunity to see how platforms responded compared to their own stated measures. How did it go? Not so well.

We selected platforms largely based on how commonly used/popular they were in India. There 4 broad categories of responses

  • Funding fact-checking, journalism efforts.

  • UI changes to direct users to authoritative sources of information.

  • Changes to information flows to contain the spread to unverified/misleading/false/incorect...(you get the point) information.

  • Updates to various policies (typically content guidelines and sections that dealt with mis/disinformation)

We broke this down further to 14 things they did and plotted them on a table.

Now, let's get back to the curious case of how they handled coronil. Even with an obvious search for something like coronil (with or without a #), there was no labelling of posts as unverified, no surfacing official sources of information, no removal of misleading trends etc. For the details, take a look at the write-up we published on ThePrint.

Staying the COVID-19 information disorder, Shruti Menon writes for BBC about its human costs in India. It is a wide ranging piece which covers religious tensions across COVID-19, the north-east Delhi riots, CAA protests as well as the impact on meat traders. 

Also, read Harini Calamur’s take on platforms’ responsibilities when it comes to hate speech and information disorder.

In India, the issue of fake news and hate speech are often interlinked. Most often, vested interests put out fake news in the hope of fuelling hate

Dovetailing with this, is an analysis of technology related questions during the budget session by Kanupriya Grover and Arpit Gupta, as per which:

Out of the 18 questions related to online content regulation, most pertained to steps taken by the government to regulate social media platforms for curbing fake news and misinformation, use of social media platforms in election campaigns and to remove unlawful content. There were also questions about a possible regulatory framework for over-the-top (“OTT”) video streaming platforms.

International ministries of truth

Brazil's senate passed a disinformation law that has some dangerous implications for speech. It will now go to the lower house, and then to Jair Bolsanaro (who has claimed that we veto it in its present form)

Kyrgyztan passed an anti-disinformation law too. In rather strange circumstances (late night vote, expedited procedure). It still presidential assent but it has some worrying aspects, such as:

"Crucially, the law will oblige the “owners” of websites and accounts on online platforms - including, it appears, individual citizens operating their own accounts - “to immediately restrict or prohibit access” to such information, as well as to moderate how other internet users engage the content. This stipulation extends to sharing or re-posting information from websites or other users that they themselves did not author."

"To ensure compliance, the law will also require every website or account owner to make their surname and initials public, as well as an email address available for receiving “legally significant messages”."

In Singapore, POFMA continues to be deployed against opposition parties.

In Egypt activists have been targeted for 'broadcasting fake news and rumours'.

In India, the Maharashtra Cyber Department has filed around 510 cases for 'fake news' and rumours (around the time edition 4 was published, this was number was around 350). Tangential - Prashant Bhushan writes for LiveLaw about stifling democracy without an emergency. Also, the district administration of Kaithal went ahead and banned social media news channels.

Kaithal has become the fourth district after Charkhi Dadri, Sonipat and Bhiwani to ban social media-based reporting.

Richard Allen has written about how an Information Disorder regulator may work. This is in the context of the United Kingdom.

Here we are... polluting the internet.

A recent episode of Lawfare's Arbiters of Truth podcast series lead me to the work of Whitney Phillips and Ryan Milner, specifically You Are Here (huge shoutout to them for making this open-access).

What I found fascinating about it was the consideration of information disorder not from the perspective of its intent, but from the results. And they do this using the metaphor of pollution throughout the book. And I think there is a substantial amount of merit to this approach, with intent we're always second guessing especially as it changes with context. But we can, set aside intent and look at the effects. That is not to say that intent should be completely disregarded - it should not, but this framing lets us... for lack of a better word... compartmentalise. One important assertion they make is that everyone has a role to play in the information ecosystem. With that in mind, I want to highlight 2 tweets from Twitter last week.

1) Sambit Patra's "PULITZER LOVERS ??" tweet.

2) Prashant Bhushan's "A man is known by the company he keeps!" tweetNote: I am not equating them in any way, I am using them as illustrations to make a point. I am not linking to the former because of the disturbing nature of the content

Let's look at the basic engagement metrics for each.



In case of (1) a number of the Quote Tweets were people disapproving of the tweet. (Unfortunately, I couldn't figure out how to extract these using Twitter APIs) However, in the act of quoting it - the tweet was amplified in their respective networks. In some cases, these were people with significantly large follower counts. Now, surely, their intent was not to magnify it. So, if you look at this purely from the perspective of intent - you are unlikely to conclude their actions were misguided. On the contrary, in such situations you are likely to get arguments such as "it's already out there", "let the good actors use it", "we should create awareness". But if you look at it from the perspective of creating pollution, then there are grounds to argue that quoting the tweet - and letting that disturbing image run wild across screens was undesirable. Perhaps, reporting it was the better course of action. 

Turning our attention over to Mr. Bhushan now. His tweet features an obviously exaggerated narrative. Jawaharlal Nehru with Albert Einstein, and Narendra Modi with Baba Ramdev. The use of this device, automatically makes it acceptable for proponents of an opposing narrative to do the same. And if they did it first, then it only serves to justify such an action.

One can conceivably defend the use of the exaggerated narrative with the explanation that it is also meant to be funny. That's where I would refer to you back to You Are Here which specifically highlights the issues with 'jokey' content such as this. 

There are no binaries here unfortunately nor a Captain Information who will self-righteously tell us what to do.

Also read this article in The Telegraph which demonstrates how an "overdose of spin erodes trust" in the context of Narendra Modi's visit to a medical facility in Ladakh and accusations that it was not a functioning facility but a staged set up for a photo-op.

My coordinated activity is nobler than your coordinated activity

In Edition 8, we spoke about TikTokers and K-pop Stan Twitter taking on the Trump campaign. Their attempts haven't ended with that rally, they've not taken to a card abandonment attack (that's not a thing, I made up the name), but it is called a 'Denial of Inventory' attack as TheVerge's Adi Robertson points out. It entails, adding a ton of items to your cart, to the point that it may even list items as being out-of-stock, only to abandon your cart after holding on to them for a while. It is hard to say how effective this actually is.

Evelyn Douek's What Does “Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior” Actually Mean? encapsulates the policy tradeoffs in such situations quite effectively.

Cross-border disinformation

Al Jazeera's Witness series episode War, Lies and Hashtags went into Information Operations in Pakistan. And this was an extremely interesting watch.

The episode focuses on Farhan Virk, whose Twitter presence took off with a fake AQ Khan handle. And, apparently, as they were filming - the Indian airstrikes targeting Balakot took place. m It is worth a watch not just to understand how some of these "informal organisations" function but some of the story-telling as well.

  • Illusory Truth effect - repeating something so often that it starts sounding real.

  • Posturing to be in a war with the 'mainstream media'

  • Deliberately spreadably false narratives.

  • Trying to bait the media, and succeeding.

Take Care Before You Share

On World Social Media Day, UN launched a campaign called "Take Care before you share". Sound advice. And in this interview, Scott Ruston suggests that is "civic duty to defend ourselves against disinformation"

Now, what if I tell you that Facebookis trying to spin that it is:

"in some sense, Facebook is a mirror to society. We're a private company but we run the platform on which America democracy plays itself out in all of its -- in all of its sort of glory and ugliness."

I've repeatedly said that Information Disorder is "both" a supply and demand problem. And I'll be the last one to say that individuals don't need to reflect on their roles in the information ecosystem. But, there is also a need to be watchful, that responsibility is not completely shifted to users, similar to the privacy conversation. 

Enter the Bandemic...en route to the 'splinternet'

What are you doing, Prateek? This is hardly the time for a pun 

No, it isn't. And this is technically not a information story either, but here we are anyway. Since it does have an implication on how information flows.

On 30th June, via a press-release no less, India announced that it was banning 59 apps. They were all Chinese, but that wasn't explicitly mentioned, only that these applications were engaging in activities 'prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India'. How? We don't exactly know, but let's take it at face-value for now. Let's also set aside the fact that a ban was not clearly defined, as I wrote at the time:

What happens if users continue to use the apps they already have downloaded? Is it now illegal to share content from TikTok or documents scanned on CamScanner? Or for someone to communicate with family/business contacts in China using WeChat? Will the state machinery take action against them like it did in the case of PUBG last year? 

Over the next few days there were strange reports from across the country - DuckDuckGo (a privacy focused search engine] was seemingly blocked across certain ISPs. Others reported that they were unable to resolve DNS queries using alternate DNS providers too (like Google DNS)

If you consider that India has been reasonably vocal about its cyber sovereignty leaning, this doesn't bode well. As the country with the second largest user-base in the world, its actions have long term implications for the future of the internet. At same time, we also seem to be asking for source code for inspection (Telecom MinistryE-commerce Draft policy

Also, keep in mind that countries like China, Russia, Iran, North Korea are all squarely in the cyber sovereignty bucket. Even advocates of 'free and open' data flows are seemingly doing a double take as 'foreign' apps gain prominence.

Worried yet? No? Ok, let me indulge in some "doom propheting"

Combine this with growing concerns around election interference, cross-border information warfare, domestic influence operations leading us towards 'fake news' regulation, flirting with mandatory verification/registration of users and there's one likely path. 

A Splinternet.

(I call dibs on Naya BharatNet)

More to consume:

  • Rasmus Nielsen's Reddit AMA on World Social Media day (he's linked to amazing research work)

  • Bottom-lines vs Crossing red-lines? An article in The Conversation looks into value-liability tradeoff that possibly drove Reddit's decision to block The_Donald subreddit.

  • Continuing on the market-forces theme, Devangshu Datta writes about the Facebook Ad Boycott in Business Standard.

  • UK is, apparently, just waking up to the problem of Information Disorder on WhatsApp