The internet is a technology that empowers. It is also a platform that can disempower. It can build bridges or dismantle them. Through dialogue it can help us search for truth, but it can also perpetuate falsehood through the breakdown of dialogue.
Technology in safe hands is a multiplier for public good; in unsafe hands it can do unimaginable public harm. It can provide a tool for terrorists to execute their demonic designs, for the mafia to peddle drugs, exploit children and profiteer from flesh trade, and provide a platform for every unsocial and destructive activity. It can target individuals, spark communal riots, and give momentum to political and ideological indoctrination.
Now rumour mongering and mob lynching are becoming everyday events. Proliferation of fake news across the internet has become a societal menace.
I realised way back in 2010, after taking over as minister for telecommunications and IT, the enormous harm the platform is capable of. As we browsed through the internet we found content that could inflame passions, encourage societal schisms and cause riots.
I met, sometime in late 2011, representatives of Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and others and shared my concerns with them. I asked them to figure out a solution, if possible, to deal with such content which have serious implications for societal equanimity. This was interpreted as an assault on freedom of the internet. Such is the power of these platforms that any attempt to prevent victimisation on such platforms is taken as an assault on freedom of speech.
Those were early days. Neither those accessing these platforms nor governments realised the full power of the medium. My fears have been proved right. Since then we have witnessed events that have created panic and breached societal peace.
Way back in 2012, SMSs and rumours on social media platforms led to the exodus of north-easterners from Bengaluru. They were gripped by panic and insecurity. The 2013 riots in Muzaffarnagar were attributed to a fake video circulated on Facebook. Violence against Muslims in Myanmar in 2012 triggered violence in Ahmedabad and Mumbai. Vadodara was in the grip of weeklong riots in October 2014, on account of a morphed image posted on the net.
An angry mob went on a rampage in Pune in June 2014 when morphed images of Shivaji and Hindu gods were shared on Facebook and WhatsApp. Sadiq Sheikh, a Muslim IT professional unconnected with the circulation of such images, was killed by a mob while returning home after offering namaz. Such images shared on platforms in the virtual world results in outbreak of rivalries between communities, genders and religions. In Baduria, West Bengal, an offensive Facebook post led to a clash between two communities in July 2017.
We now know that videos fuelling rumours of child lifting – that led to recent lynchings by mobs in Dhule, Maharashtra – were manipulated. Some of the clippings were from Bengaluru, Karachi and Syria. The platforms on which these images run riot are now being asked to find solutions.
The Supreme Court hopes and expects the government to introduce anti-lynching legislation. The New York Times is quiet. I guess they realise, as they should have earlier, that no freedoms are absolute; that victims and societal peace need to be protected; that freedom to use such platforms to perpetrate crimes, to defame, abuse, lynch and kill is a deeply flawed concept.
The problem is that an anti-lynching legislation is not a solution to this menace. Laws are no deterrents when mindsets are polluted, with silent support from those who encourage the culture of hate. In the last four years we have seen how this culture has seeded, mushroomed and spread; how the aloof silent majority watches members of the Muslim minority and Dalits lynched in public.
We have also witnessed investigators protect the accused and accuse the victims. If investigating agencies collaborate with lynch mobs, then culpability will fall squarely at the doorstep of the state. No legislation will help prevent such complicity. To ask platforms to intervene is no solution either, because the nature of the medium does not allow for pre-censorship. If not these platforms, there are other means to spread rumours.
Such platforms, of course, must endeavour to develop technologies which upon discovery of such content eliminate it. Technology must immediately douse the spreading fire. Limiting forwards of photos, videos and messages to five chats in India and removal of the quick forward button next to media messages by WhatsApp is a welcome step.
We need a three-pronged strategy. First, the political class must speak in one voice and announce zero tolerance against those who use and attempt to use such platforms for inciting violence. For that, polarisation of society for electoral gains must stop.
Second, the Election Commission may consider making hate speech an electoral offence. Third, anonymity must not be allowed to be used as a shield when morphed images or rumour mongering spreads hate. Social media platforms must with alacrity disclose the identity of the source spreading venom. The law must get at the source and visit the persons identified with deterrent punishment.
Target those who use the medium for inciting violence and those who take the law into their own hands. The government will be ill advised to target the medium. Instead, rumour mongering and hate speech must be targeted to protect free speech.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.
Courtesy: This article is published in the TOI on July 26, 2018.