Regulation of digital media: Ever-growing reach of ‘digital republics’ poses a huge challenge

The task of bringing OTT platforms and digital news portals under regulation has to be undertaken in a manner that will limit the scope of arbitrariness and authoritarianism

Representative Image (Photo Courtesy: IANS)
Representative Image (Photo Courtesy: IANS)

K Raveendran/IPA

The fight against misinformation and fake news on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and others is apparently entering a decisive stage, with the government reportedly floating a tender to invite agencies for providing solutions and services related to fact verification and disinformation detection on social media platforms. The tender has been floated through the public sector enterprise Broadcast Engineering Consultants India Limited (BECIL).

While fake news is a global problem, it is posing a bigger threat in India due to the massive reach of social media platforms, which are being used to wage information wars, bombarding Indians with fake news and divisive propaganda from a wide range of sources, from television news to social media giants like Facebook and WhatsApp. Cyber armies have become a regular part of political parties and propaganda outfits, which use the platforms to target their opponents, minorities and all those who hold divergent opinions.

Parallelly, the government has moved quickly to bring digital media, films and audio-visual programmes over OTT platforms as well as news and current affairs content under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to ensure easier regulation.

There is no doubt that the problem is of a huge magnitude. But the task of bringing the platforms under regulation has to be undertaken in a manner that will limit the scope of arbitrariness and authoritarianism, which any such control is liable to degenerate into. Also, it has to be done without impinging on the freedom of speech and expression, which makes it all the more sensitive.

The social media platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp have become nothing less than digital republics, with their membership far exceeding the population of the most populous countries of the world. This has meant that they have a stranglehold over the business of disseminating information.

According to a latest research and data analysis report on the reach of social media platforms published by ComprarAcciones, Facebook inched closer to becoming the first social network with 3 billion users as of the third quarter of this year. It had 2.74 billion monthly active users at the end of September 2020, up by 12% year-over-year. Facebook was also the most popular social networking platform. YouTube and WhatsApp followed with 2 billion users each, while Messenger was third with 1.3 billion. In total, the four had a cumulative 8 billion users.

Thanks to India and China, most of this growth is occurring in Asia Pacific, which accounted for a market of 1.17 billion users, compared to 413 million users in Europe, 255 million in the US and Canada, with the rest of the world accounting for 906 million monthly active users.

Facebook was the first social media platform to surpass the 1 billion mark in the number of active users. It also owns four of the most popular social media apps which include WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram as well as Facebook core. Across its family of apps, Facebook posted a total of 3.21 billion users during the third quarter, up from 3.1 billion in the second quarter.

According to a ‘We Are Social’ report, WhatsApp was the most popular mobile messenger app as of October 2020, with 2 billion monthly users globally. Facebook Messenger came in a distant second with 1.3 billion users, while Weixin/WeChat was third with 1.206 billion. Other apps beyond the top three followed at a significant distance. QQ was fourth with 648 million, SnapChat fifth with 433 million and Telegram took the sixth spot with 400 million.

On the list of most popular social networks globally though, Facebook took the lead with its 2.7 billion user base. YouTube came in second with 2 billion, same as WhatsApp, which ranked third. Facebook Messenger was fourth. In total, the top four most popular social networks boasted a cumulative 8 billion active users. This was higher than that of the next 13 networks combined, which totalled 7.8 billion, according to Statista.

YouTube was an exception in the top four social media networks as it does not belong to the Facebook family. According to its parent company Alphabet’s Q3 2020 earnings call, its Premium and Music services had more than 30 million paying subscribers in Q3 2020. The number had doubled in less than 18 months as it only had 15 million paying subscribers in May 2019. Moreover, YouTube TV subscribers reached 3 million during the quarter, up from 2 million in February 2020.

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