In his most recent address to the nation, Prime Minister Modi announced sweeping changes to India’s vaccination policy. Going ahead, the Central Government would take control of most of the procurement of vaccine and their distribution among states. In his speech, the Prime Minister also took veiled jibes at a few Chief Ministers as well as loudmouthed opposition politicians with no skin in the game. They had demanded the right to procure vaccines, they had been given responsibility and they had failed. And so the Center will take charge, again.
Following this, an enraged P Chidambaram of the Congress demanded proof of any state government demanding the right to procure its own vaccines. In response, folks on social media quickly dug out the letters and the newspaper headlines. Mr Chidambaram conceded that he had been wrong.
Then, the fact-checkers got into the game. In a particularly long-winded and desperate piece, they essentially argued that Chidambaram was correct. What about the signed letter from Bengal CM asking to procure vaccines? That one doesn’t count, because it is a few months old. What about Rahul Gandhi’s letter asking for states to have greater say in vaccine procurement? That doesn’t count either, because the expression “greater say” is open to interpretation!
This is not fact-checking. In fact, this is nothing at all. This is probably a form of trolling, but this is also propaganda. It’s a desperate effort to generate a headline that gives the impression that the Prime Minister’s claims have been discredited. You know things are bad when P Chidambaram admits he is wrong but the fact-checkers end up arguing that he is right.
The fact-checkers have been doing this for a while and on a range of issues. Making up excuses for one side and fact-checking irrelevant details on the other. Did you say that someone pelted stones on the roof of a temple? They find someone who claims that stones were pelted on the wall and not on the roof. That could be a fact-check. In other words, say something pointless so that it diverts the discussion and throws reasonable people off balance. There are no standards for whose view counts as a reliable source. In West Bengal for instance, any claim by the state police is considered reliable and can be used as a basis to fact-check others. In Uttar Pradesh, the opposite happens. Any claim by any random person becomes a basis to fact-check the state police!
What qualifies someone to be a fact-checker? Nobody is quite certain. Apparently, there is something called the International Fact-Checking Network or IFCN, which I can only assume is a bit like IIPM, ranked number one in “global competitiveness.”
The scary part is just how much power the IFCN has. The big social media companies have outsourced censorship to fact-checkers who are generally certified by IFCN. In the modern world, fact-checkers get to control the flow of information. The public square has shifted online. Whoever controls it also controls the market of ideas. And yet, how many people have even heard of the IFCN? How many folks can name a single person who makes these decisions on what you are allowed to say in the new public square? At least we know the names of the big tech CEOs. If they censored anyone, we could point a finger at them personally. So now they have this rabbit hole where faceless fact-checkers control the market of ideas.
It isn’t just about your personal social media account. Consider what this does to the media landscape. If the fact-checkers are not on your side, they will hit you with any number of labels like “partly false” or “misleading” or “manipulated.” The social media companies will either ban you or won’t let you monetize. Either way, it will create too much uncertainty for anyone to invest in an opposing viewpoint. Media is a business. If you make the business model unviable, nobody will ever invest in it. Good luck getting your free speech to have an effect.
Okay, but what about those people who say the fact-checkers are doing something worthwhile after all? What about all the random misinformation on the internet? Don’t you want to know if someone is passing off riots from Bangladesh as pictures from West Bengal? Does that not serve the public interest?
The answer is yes it does. Like the actual public square that came before it, the internet is a messy place, full of liars and cheats. There is always someone who has something to gain by spreading lies. The question is whether we need an Orwellian Big Brother-like figure installed in the public square, watching the crowd from a giant telescreen? Would that make things better or worse?
Indeed, the same fears about the spread of misinformation on the internet have always been expressed about democracy itself. Can you really trust the intelligence of the common voter? Would it not be better to put power in the hands of some group perceived to be better or more enlightened in some way?
And yet, every alternative to democracy and the universal adult franchise has always proven to be worse, always a tool of bigotry and injustice. The kings of old thought that only they and the sons of other noblemen would understand how to run the country. In the United States, the world’s oldest democracy, there was a time when only white males who owned property could vote.
But wait, you might say. We are not talking about discrimination on racial or gender lines here. We are talking about meritocracy; the better informed dictating terms to the common masses. Unfortunately, policing speech always ends up the same way. That’s where the Communist dictatorships came from. They thought they were the enlightened ones, who knew what was best for everyone else.
Incidentally, the United States did experiment with a form of “merit-based” voting requirements. Until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, many southern states used methods such as poll taxes, minimum educational requirements, literacy tests, civics tests to decide voter eligibility. In theory, these did not violate the Equal Protection Clause in the US Constitution. But in both design and practice, they did. The literacy tests, in particular, were infamous, because poll officials applied them subjectively. The poll officials would simply ask easy questions to white citizens. They would ask African Americans difficult questions about obscure bits of history that most people would not know about.
In reality, there is no such thing as “merit based” voting requirements. It is always bigotry and injustice.
In many ways, those infamous civics tests are exactly what the fact-checkers are giving today. In both design and practice, they hold the two sides of the political spectrum to completely different standards. If you are part of the global liberal elite, you get a pass on everything. In fact, they will figure out excuses to prove you right even if you personally admit that you are wrong. On the other side of the spectrum, they “fact check” you and brand you a liar for spelling “school” with the second ‘O’ before the first.