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Code of Ethics in digital media space

  • Category
    Ethics
  • Published
    7th Dec, 2021

Context

The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Communications and Information Technology presented a report on 'Ethical Standards in Media Coverage' in the Parliament.

Background

  • The parliamentary panel asked the government to ensure code of ethics is followed in the digital media space while preserving the ‘right to freedom of expression’.
  • The Government brought out 'The Information Technology (Guidelines for Intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 to ensure transparency and accountability for social media platforms with a robust oversight mechanism by the government.
    • The rules were notified on February 25, 2021.
    • These rules seek to regulate social media intermediaries such as Google, Facebook, WhatsApp, and Twitter, as also digital media, including OTT and digital news platforms.
    • The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeITY) will execute the guidelines for social media intermediaries, and the information and broadcasting ministry will oversee the code of ethics for digital media.
    • These rules are intended to create a level playing field for print, television, and digital media.
    • They also create a regulatory framework for digital media.
    • Per the rules, all intermediaries and digital media platforms must set up a three-tier grievance redress mechanism and submit monthly compliance reports.
    • Complaints must be acknowledged in 24 hours and disposed of in 15 days.
    • The l&B secretary is authorized to block or take down content in the interim

Regulation of Media, Digital media and Social media in India

  • In 1966, began to establish a self-regulatory organisation called the Press Council. In India, a statutory body, the Press Council of India (PCI), governs the conduct of the print media.
  • The body that regulates and governs the media and entertainment sector in India is enshrined in the Cable Networks Act, 1995 and the Prasar Bharti Act, 1990. These are regulated by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and PrasarBharti.
  • Films being released on screens are already subject to the certification from Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), a statutory body formed under the act of the Parliament, the Cinematograph Act, 1952. 
  • Several OTT platforms and operators like Hotstar, Netflix are not governed till now, however they are increasingly adopting self-regulation codes.
  • The ‘Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021’: The Rules have been framed under the Information Technology Act, 2000, by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeiTY), which administers the Act.
    • These rules seek to regulate content in social media platforms (intermediaries) like Twitter and Facebook, a consequence of the government feeling that unbridled content on these platforms is sometimes inimical to the country’s interests.

Analysis

What is digital media?

  • Digital news media includes online journalism, blogging, digital photojournalism, citizen journalism and social media.
  • Digital media ethics deals with the distinct ethical problems, practices and norms of digital news media.
    • It includes questions about how professional journalism should use this ‘new media’ to research and publish stories, as well as how to use text or images provided by citizens.

Media ethics

  • Media ethics is the sub-division of applied ethics dealing with the specific ethical principles and standard of media, including broadcast media, film, theatre, arts, print media and the internet.
  • The field covers many varied and highly controversial topics, ranging from war journalism to advertising.
  • Digital Media Ethics
  • Digital media ethics deals with the distinct ethical problems, practices and norms of digital news media.
  • Digital news media includes online journalism, blogging, digital photojournalism, citizen journalism and social media.
  • It also includes questions about how professional journalism should use this new media to research and publish stories, as well as how to use text or images provided by citizens.

Need for Ethics for Digital media

  • Anonymity
    • While online media allows more anonymity, in offline media usually requires identity of writers
    • The question arises that what should be the ethical guidelines for anonymity offline and online.
  • Fake news
    • The ethical challenge is to articulate guidelines for dealing with fake news in an online world that are consistent with the principles of accuracy, verification, and transparency
  • Defining journalism
    • The ethical challenge is to redefine what independent journalism in the public interest means for a media where many new types of journalism are appearing and where basic principles are being challenged.
  • Social media commentary
    • The ethical challenge is to develop social media guidelines that allow reporters to explore the new media world but also to draw reasonable limits on personal commentary.
  • Using citizens content
    • Digital Newsrooms need to put in place a process for citizen-supplied material, which may be bogus or biased.
    • And citizens should be given due credit for the content.
    • It should also be done without encroaching on the privacy of citizens.
  • Reach of Social Media
    • All significant social media platforms with more than 50 lakh (5 million) users, which means Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Koo, for instance, are very much categorized as large social media platforms.
    • As of March this year, 
      • WhatsApp has more than 390 million users in India
      • Facebook had clocked 320 million users in India, as of January 2021 numbers from research firm Statista, making this the largest market for the company ahead of the US (190 million) and Indonesia (140 million).
      • Twitter also has more than 17.5 million users in India, as per the numbers from January this year.
      • The made in India social media platform Koo has crossed 60 lakh users.

Other ethical issues emerging out of digital media

  • Plagiarism has become an often-accepted practice and international cultural norm due at least in part to the ease and temptation of copying online sources.
  • Digitally altering images or video is common in advertising and sometimes in news.
  • Using anonymous sources is frequently an accepted practice in journalism. 
  • Omni-directional imaging is more than science fiction.
  • WikiLeaks and the transparency of public records have changed how the public understands government, the military and big business around the world. 
  • Artificial intelligence and computerized news writing are commercial realities. 

Observations of the Panel

  • The committee expressed grave concern that media is gradually losing its credibility and integrity where values and morality are being compromised and there are rampant instances of violations of code of conduct of ethics by the media reflected in the form of paid news, fake news, TRPs manipulation, media trials, sensationalism, biased reporting, etc.
  • The panel observed that social media platforms, like Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Twitter, etc. have placed journalism in the hands of the citizens.
  • Citizens use their personal recording devices including cell phones to capture events and post them on the internet
  • The panel said that though, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology does not have a record of the number of internet websites in India
  • The committee impressed upon the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) to ensure that adequate consultations take place with all stakeholders and that oversight of digital media may be exercised while fully preserving their right to freedom of expression
  • The committee expects the ministries to promote better inter-ministerial coordination, systematic awareness creation about these new rules/guidelines, etc., so that the rules are implemented effectively to ensure accountability of online/OTT platforms.

How other countries deal with social media intermediaries?

  • United States: As most of the bigger social media intermediaries have their headquarters in the US, the most keenly watched is Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which provides Internet companies a safe harbour from any content users post of these platforms.
    • Experts believe it is this provision in the US law that enabled companies such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google to become global conglomerates.
    • Like Section 79 of India’s IT Act, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act states that “no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider”.
  • Australia:Australia passed the Sharing of Abhorrent Violent Material Act in 2019, introducing criminal penalties for social media companies, possible jail sentences for tech executives for up to three years and financial penalties worth up to 10% of a company's global turnover.
  • Russia:Russia's data laws from 2015 required social media companies to store any data about Russians on servers within the country.
  • China:Sites such as Twitter, Google and WhatsApp are blocked in China. Their services are provided instead by Chinese providers such as Weibo, Baidu and WeChat.

Conclusion

There is a need to bring code of ethics for digital media such that the credibility of media improves and transparency and accountability increases in the digital media sphere.

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