April 1, 2024


Should governments set up fact-checking units?

In the age of misinformation, disinformation, and fake news, it’s extra important to know that the information and news we consume are legitimate and factual. Also important are the sources of news and information, and people are bombarded from all corners. It can become tricky to sift through all the muck to get to the facts.

A recent Supreme ruling brought this issue to the fore. It ordered a stay on the Centre’s fact-checking unit (FCU). The government’s decision to have an FCU raised eyebrows. The Bombay High Court, too, will have its say. Until then, is a government having a body to fact-check information such a bad idea? Is it dangerous in any way, or can it be a useful tool for the masses?


Over the past few years, governments, businesses, news outlets, and public figures have increasingly leveraged the internet to reach their audiences. The internet has become a trove for all sorts of information of mass relevance, ranging from public health, policies, entertainment, etc.

For better and for worse, the space has only gotten more crowded thanks to the democratisation of the internet. Bad actors have found ways to seed false, misleading, and potentially harmful information. A small nugget can snowball into something of consequence. Conspiracy theories fester and grow and bleed into the mainstream.

Did you know April 2 is International Fact-Checking Day? It’s promoted by the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) in partnership with global fact-checking organisations.

Perhaps the largest share of responsibility in combating disinformation lies with Big Tech and social media companies. It’s especially true this year when several countries, including the US and India, head to the polls. Companies like Google, for example, routinely update their fact-checking policies to flag false information. For example, it has the FactShala India media literacy network.

Global organisations and outlets have spent a lot more time and money setting up fact-checking units. According to the Duke Reporters’ Lab, the number of active fact-checking projects in 2021 was 391, up from 168 in 2016. The reason is simple, as former IFCN Director Baybars Orsek said, “Our collective trust in reliable and authoritative information is being attacked by people in power.”

What happens when the people in power form their own fact-checking unit? In 2020, a government-run fact-checking unit emerged in Brazil. Trends pointed to more governments following suit. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government launched the Ethiopia Current Issues Fact Check in November 2020. In Indonesia, a government initiative called KOMINFO was set up before the 2019 presidential election.

Then came India’s turn. The Union government set up an FCU under the Press Information Bureau (PIB). The final draft of the rule removed the reference to the PIB. The Karnataka government announced something similar last year, the day after an FIR was filed against a Hindi news channel anchor for spreading misinformation.

Given how rife social media and the internet are with false and misleading information, should the government be in the fact-checking business, or is this just another avenue for propaganda?

VIEW: Could be helpful

The Indian government’s fact-checking unit isn’t obscure or something out of the blue. It’s important to know that the new Information Technology rules laid the groundwork. It puts the onus on companies like Facebook and Twitter to make reasonable efforts to not store, display, and transmit information that deceives and misleads users.

It’s noteworthy to look at this issue of government-run fact checkers through the lens of what’s happening in India, the world’s largest democracy gearing up to vote. The government has routinely called out social media platforms for their unwillingness or inability to take steps to stamp out misinformation. While these companies periodically discuss and blog about what they’re doing to combat disinformation, it hasn’t amounted to much.

We needn’t look too far back to see what happens when false information and conspiracy theories run amok online, as social media companies have free rein. The 2016 US presidential election is the best example. Congressional hearings on the issue saw the CEOs of these companies sit before lawmakers and explain to everyone what happened. Even with all the existing efforts since then, whatever lessons have been learnt, it doesn’t seem enough. Governments feel the need to step in.

COUNTERVIEW: It’s a bad idea all around

Just on the face of it, a government-run fact-checking unit or body sounds silly or even farcical. The power to ensure that information is true or false shouldn’t be given to people or entities giving out such information. Giving the government the power to fact-check itself is a surefire road to constant propaganda.

We also know such efforts don’t work. Let’s take the Brazil example. An IFCN signatory, Lupa, found that 52% of all stories published by the Brazilian government didn’t have proper sourcing, or the sources were only within the government. That’s what usually happens. Government-led fact-checking activities don’t meet basic standards of impartiality or objectivity. If we take it further, state media could amplify these “fact-checks” and make it even harder for the public to get accurate information.

What’s scary is that government-backed or run fact-checking units can also be an intimidation tool. In Indonesia, the government has used defamation and other laws to jail people under the guise of fighting disinformation. When protests broke out in 2020 over a law that reduced labour rights, the government labelled critical content as hoaxes and jailed activists. It’s easy to see why such a thing could become commonplace in democracies, even in India, where the BJP-led government is already under the gun for going after political opponents.

Reference Links:

  • Misinformation: how fact-checking journalism is evolving – and having a real impact on the world – The Conversation
  • Fact-checking movement grapples with a world awash in false claims – The Washington Post
  • Karnataka govt shares details of fact checking unit to curb misinformation – Hindustan Times
  • India will fact-check online posts about government matters – Tech Crunch
  • Centre’s fact-check unit: What is it and how does the Union govt defend it? – Business Standard
  • A global rise in government-led fact-checking initiatives cause concern, worries of misuse – Poynter
  • The Fact of the Matter: ‘Fact-Check Units’ Are Designed To Protect the State – The Quint

What is your opinion on this?
(Only subscribers can participate in polls)

a) Governments should set up fact-checking units.

b) Governments should not set up fact-checking units.


For the Right:

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For the Left:

Mukhtar Ansari: No tears need to be shed for a man who had terrorised people