RTI exposes government’s fraudulent fact-check mechanism
Qazi Mizan: On January 17, 2023, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology proposed changes to the Information Technology Rules, 2021. These changes will enforce strict government censorship of online content. It would require telecom service providers and social media platforms to take down content branded “fake” by the government’s publicity arm – the Press Information Bureau – or any other government agencies “authorised” to fact-check online content. In other words, a government agency could decide what news articles should be distributed on the internet and which should be taken down.
The proposed rules allow the government sweeping powers to restrict information available to the public, and to remove content critical of its functioning. The amendment to the IT Rules also authorises nodal departments of the Union government to scrutinise news about its work and label it “false” if they deem it so. This effectively means that the Union government would be the judge in cases of critical reportage where it stands accused of misgovernance or malpractice.
The PIB has a Fact Check Unit which claims to verify and fact-check published news and announce through tweets when it believes a story is ‘fake’.
So, when PIB put this fake stamp on one of the stories I had investigated, we at The Reporters’ Collective decided to investigate what due diligence the PIB really follows in ascertaining if a story is incorrect or not.
On June 30, 2022, I revealed, for The Collective, how the Centre had moved to make Aadhaar compulsory for children under six years of age to get nutritious food at anganwadi centres – government run mother and child care centres. This would threaten food security of millions of children who depend on the meals provided at these centres. Only 23% children in India under five have Aadhaar. It was also against the Supreme Court’s 2018 ruling that children couldn’t be denied any services or welfare for the lack of Aadhaar.
As the story gained traction on social media, the women and child development ministry was quick in tweeting out its side – that Aadhaar was not compulsory for children to get food under its scheme. PIB Fact Check immediately towed the ministry’s line and labelled the story “fake”. It did not give any documentary backing for the claim.
PIB posted a tweet on June 30, 2022, labelling the story ‘fake’.
PIB’s modus operandi of branding news fake sans explanation was not new.
To know more, I filed queries under the Right to Information Act to find out how PIB fact-checks are carried out. The RTI, filed with the women and child development ministry, was also transferred to the PIB. The RTI responses I received from them solidify past concerns and allegations that the government’s publicity arm does not follow any set procedure for verifying the veracity of information it attempts to discredit.
RTI queries sent to the women and child development ministry regarding the PIB Fact Check.
The WCD ministry’s reply stated that according to guidelines issued on August 1, 2022, a child’s Aadhaar was not mandatory for the nutrition scheme.
WCD ministry’s response to RTI queries on how the fact-check was conducted.
Now, one might say that the ministry’s answer is proof enough that the story was fake. But hold on. The guidelines the ministry was referring to came a month after the story was published and labelled false. In other words, the ministry had time-travelled to access guidelines it would publish weeks later and cited them while calling my story fake.
It took me a bit to understand why this time-travel tale was another level of bungling by the government. I will come to it shortly.
The PIB on its part said the fact-check was done on the basis of the WCD ministry’s tweet. It sent a link to the tweet and attached a photo of the tweet with the reply. And that was all. In other words, there was no fact-check at the PIB. It had merely parroted what the nodal WCD ministry had put out in a tweet.
The PIB reply said that the fact-check was based only on the WCD ministry’s tweet.
PIB attached the WCD ministry’s tweet that it had used to call the story fake.
I appealed under the RTI Act for more clarity. The WCD ministry responded and said: “No further information regarding PIB Fact Check is available.” So the nodal ministry had no record that it told the government’s publicity wing that the story is fake. Which would make one think that PIB did the fact-check on its own.
This is not possible under government regulations. The PIB, which works under the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, always asks the nodal ministry to provide it the information to be disseminated. It does not have the mandate to say something on a ministry’s behalf on its own.
Let me explain what actually transpired within the government.
The story exposing the government’s attempt to make Aadhaar compulsory was shared widely on social media. It spurred public interest in the issue and many people shared their experiences around Aadhaar – how it is enforced in anganwadi centres and schools even after the Supreme Court’s 2018 order that no child be refused welfare for the lack of the unique identification number.
To the government’s credit, it realised it had made a mistake by making Aadhaar mandatory. But it would not admit so publicly. So, discreetly, it revised its guidelines. In August 2022, the Centre came out with a fresh set of guidelines in which it changed its stand on Aadhaar for children – that it is not mandatory and a mother’s ID can be used to register children into the scheme.
So, by the time the government responded to my RTI application in August it now had these revised guidelines and it bungled to cite them as proof of the story being incorrect in June.
If the IT Rules the government now proposes were in play in June 2022, the government would have had the power to get the story killed on the internet and taken down by all social media platforms, thus ensuring it did not reach citizens.
Tapasya is a journalist with The Reporters’ Collective, a journalism collaborative that publishes in multiple languages and media.