Think twice before sharing any content on social media platforms, says Law Minister

Law Minister Anisul Huq on Saturday sought the support of mainstream media outlets to fight the phenomenon of fake news saying that the government cannot be expected to do the job alone.

"The mainstream media outlets have an important role to play alongside the government to stop the spreading and publishing of fake news," he said while speaking as the chief guest at a symposium on fake news and hate speech organised by Cosmos Foundation, the philanthropic arm of UNB's parent organisation Cosmos Group.

The Law Minister emphasised befitting punishment and investigating the sources of incomes of those who are producing and spreading fake news intentionally.

"A newer technology needs to be developed to identify fake news because we've to face technology with technology. Social media platforms need to be made accountable, too," said Minister Huq.

He also called for creating awareness among social media users mentioning that the users must have the primary idea about which is news and which one is fake.

"We need to think again and again before sharing any web link or news on social media platforms, including Facebook. Any accident might occur due to the sharing of any fake news, even if you share it subconsciously. No one of us can escape this responsibility," the Law Minister said.

He said if anyone shares fake news intentionally today there is no guarantee that he or she will not be a victim of such fake news tomorrow. "So, rumours can't be spread seeing something on social media. We must wait with patience to make sure about the authenticity of the information."

The Law Minister identified five reasons behind the practice of fake news in the country and those are spreading rumours on communalism, publishing dogmatic political and religious falsehoods; victimising political opponents, creating panic among people and spreading unscientific speculations.

Minister Huq suggested the social media users to depend on credible media outlets if anyone thinks that he or she is not qualified enough to determine which one is fake and which one is authentic news.

"It'll be a wise decision for you to depend on credible media outlets. And thus, the number of fake news posting will come down," he added.

Describing such discussions as a powerful method, the Law Minister reiterated that they need to get together on an international level for combatting fake news as technology makes them trans-border crimes.

He highlighted the government's initiatives to deal with fake news, including formulation of the Digital Security Act and the formation of Cyber Court.

The Law Minister said the mainstream media outlets should be faster in disseminating objective information so that readers do not have to depend on social media platforms.

"Media outlets need to come out from the tendency of hiding information or remaining silent. We need to keep in mind that the journey of fake news begins when the path to accessing the truth is stopped," he added.

The Cosmos Foundation event was titled 'Fake News and Hate Speech, Causes and Consequences: How it subverts our Democratic Systems.'

President of the Paris-based Association for Accountability and Internet Democracy (AAID) Dan Shefet, who is also an expert authority on European and IT Law, was the keynote speaker.

Principal Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), National University of Singapore and a former Adviser to Bangladesh's previous caretaker government Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury chaired the session while Cosmos Foundation Chairman Enayetullah Khan delivered the welcome speech.

Shefet said state-sponsored fake news is an important issue about which media should be careful.

He said state-sponsored fake news is propaganda while 'astroturfing' is another issue which affects the businesses with fake news.

"I've a number of cases where fake news is used as a campaign tool to take business advantages and affect the business competitors. The market value of a company can be reduced or increased with fake news," Shefet added.

If fake news is spread about violation of labour law against Bangladesh's RMG sector, it will badly affect its reputation, he said adding, "So, we need to be very careful about fake news that affects businesses and its environment."

About the international cooperation to check fake news, he said there is an international treaty against hate speech.

As per the treaty, he said, if any broadcaster of any county spread hate speech against any other country, the first country where the media is based, can be made responsible by the affecting country. "This is the principle we should apply for the internet."

In other word, he said, if the country allows any person or company on its territory to spread hateful content inciting against another country should be held responsible for it.

Enayetullah Khan said Facebook and other big tech companies should be subject to a compulsory code of ethics to tackle the spread of fake news, harmful contents and disinformation.

"We need a radical shift in the balance of power between the platforms and the people," he said adding that the rights of the citizen need to be established in statute, by requiring the tech companies to adhere to a code of conduct written into Law by Parliament and overseen by an independent regulator.

Khan said democracy is at risk for the malicious and relentless targeting of citizens with misinformation and personalised adverts from unidentified sources. "Social media platforms are failing to act against harmful content and respect the privacy of users."

Echoing Minister Huq, Dr Iftekhar said the government alone cannot fight fake news and hate speech and the people of the country need to stay beside the government to deal with the issue.

He described how the power of free speech to receive and impart information was undermined by motivated, false and fake news.

The discussion was followed by a question-answer session.

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