The Press Information Bureau (PIB) has revealed in an RTI reply that its Fact Check Unit is run by two officers of the Indian Information Services – a joint director and an assistant director. The RTI also admitted that there are no domain experts assessing the officers of PIB’s fact-check unit. The PIB in its response admitted that this fact-check unit is currently operating without any statutory basis or institutional mechanisms. The absence of expertise overlooking/ assessing the fact-checks undertaken, the supposed issue of scale and capacity within the fact-checking unit’s headquarters, and the operational as well as functional inadequacies are a cause for concern.
A fact-check unit in the PIB was set up in November 2019 under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. This body is tasked with taking cognisance of fake news relating to the Union government, both suo motu and by way of queries sent by citizens. It is also tasked with responding to these queries with correct information and flagging any misinformation or false information on social media. Worth noting then, that in its response, the PIB reveals having received nearly 1.2 lakh requests for fact checking information on the internet in the last three years, i.e. since April 2020, whereas it has only acted upon 1,223 of them – a modest 1% action rate.
Some of this may be explained by considering the possibility of generating duplicate queries, lack of sufficient information, etc. Some may also be explained by a parliamentary response provided by the Minister of Information and Broadcasting, dated March 21, 2023, which stated that the “PIB Fact Check Unit has so far responded to 37,000 actionable queries”. The same response was reiterated by the Minister of State for Electronics and Information Technology in another parliamentary response dated February 7, 2023. Nevertheless, the gap in action rate vs number of queries received is alarming. Use of the phrase “actionable queries” could provide some clarity on the low action rate, but the concern around issues of scale and lack of capacity will need to be addressed by PIB’s fact-check unit, especially given the inaction, and its framing in its RTI response that “the number of total Fake News [it has] busted is 1189”.
The Standing Committee on Communications and Information Technology in its 27th Report on ‘Ethical Standards in Media Coverage’ observed that “a Fact Check Unit (FCU) has been established in the PIB in December, 2019 and such FCUs have also been set up in 17 Regional Offices of PIB”. The existence of these regional offices may alleviate the concern of scale and capacity, however, it is worth questioning whether PIB’s officers are well suited, trained and sufficiently independent to fact check online content related to the Union government at all. Given the scale and the importance of the task that is currently being undertaken by PIB’s fact-checker, it is critical that it gains public trust by establishing its independence, capability and expertise.
The RTI application to which PIB provided its response was filed in the context of draft amendments to the IT Rules, 2021 from January 2023, which proposed that PIB’s fact-check unit will be empowered to order take downs of online formation about the Union government that it has flagged as “fake” or “false”. Intermediaries would then be obligated to take such content down. Subsequently, the amendments to the IT Rules, 2021, which were notified on April 6, 2023, removed the direct reference to PIB’s fact check unit, appearing to indicate the establishment of other fact check units to be empowered to flag (and order take down of) information related to the government as ‘fake or false or misleading’. These fact check units, to be set up under the notified IT Amendment Rules, 2023, have not been established yet, and the IT Amendment Rules, 2023 have not provided the existing PIB fact-check unit with these powers, as of now.
This change, from PIB’s fact-checker to a separate fact check unit, could be a consequence of the widespread criticism received by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) on its proposal to designate PIB, the government’s nodal agency to disseminate information, with the responsibility to also fact check news related to the government.
The proximity of the PIB to the Union government, in addition to the concerns that have been raised about the credibility of its fact-check unit, raises pertinent questions on its ability to carry out its tasks in a non-partisan, fair and independent manner. These very concerns led several stakeholders, particularly news media organisations and journalists, to wonder how it may affect their freedom of speech and the right to receive information. The Union government, may however, still choose to notify the PIB’s currently operational fact-checker as one of the official fact checking entities under the amended IT Rules, 2021.
Tanmay Singh is the Senior Litigation Counsel and Tejasi Panjiar is an Associate Policy Counsel at the Internet Freedom Foundation.