It is the duty of the government to keep toxic online content in check

It is a wake-up call for peddlers of toxic content online. Top brands have let their displeasure known about unregulated and unfiltered content that appears alongside their advertisements on online portals. For the last few months there has been a hue and cry over objectionable content appearing next to advertisements placed by some of the highly regarded global brands which are now determined to set the ground rules for where the ads appears. Unilever is the latest to join the crusade for cleansing the net from fake news, child abuse, wrong portrayal of women, terror, modern slavery and gender related content. The global consumer goods major has rightfully threatened to withdraw its advertising campaigns from Facebook, Google, Snapchat, Amazon and others if fake news is not filtered out. Unilever’s stand is important against the backdrop of trolling and rumour mongering resorted to by vested interest groups on online platforms that have often caused virtual chaos.

Unsubstantiated content doing the rounds on the net has become a big hazard for democracies and that includes India. Unilever’s stand is in sync with growing anger against unregulated content. Heads of state and government have also stepped in to stop such matter from finding their way into the net. For instance, British prime minister Theresa May had voiced her opposition to the misuse of social media platforms.

Even though Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has denied all such charges by top end advertisers like Unilever, the social media czar has conceded, albeit indirectly, that social media platforms are being misused and abused. A case in point pertains to the manner in which the Russians have pushed content that was false, half true or completely baseless and viewed by millions of readers on Google and Facebook. This is not a phenomenon limited to western economies alone. Globally, a lot of disinformation and misinformation has been floating around without monitoring or regulation. In the Indian context, Hindustan Unilever (HUL)’s threat to pull out online campaigns is a grim reminder of ‘divisive, extreme content’ that has been appearing routinely.

While Unilever spends almost $9.4 billion on online advertising, the Dutch company’s Indian arm, HUL shells out over Rs 3,000 crore on online marketing of its consumer products. Companies may have to use the power of their advertising budgets to regulate the Internet and social media platforms. If all Indian companies set to fork out about Rs 25,000 crore by 2020 come together, the great clean up act of social media is bound to happen.

A related issue is exploring the possibility of online policing and regulation of news content in particular. For instance, in the ongoing anti terror campaign across the Kashmir valley, social media platforms have been effectively used to push divisive content by separatists facing the heat of security forces. Then, in the political crisis that has erupted in the Maldives, social media platforms were manipulated by users playing favourites for China or India while the voice of Maldivians got muzzled.

Several countries, including India, have limited means to prevent abuse of social media. In India’s case, cleansing online media is all the more significant given prime minister Narendra Modi’s emphasis on leveraging online and social media platforms to connect with people. Given that most services were also being delivered via social media and internet platforms, these information highways need to be sanitised. If print media, broadcast and telecast media can be regulated, there is certainly a case for creating norms for internet-based social media platforms whose toxicity have reached unsustainable levels.