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The net is dead, long live the net. Block one website; hundred others may be born almost instantly. Like an enraged Cyclops playing whac-a-mole, the government, in a bid to combat rumour-mongering and hatespeak, even blocked parody Twitter accounts of the prime minister. Satire is clearly lost on the home and IT ministries for whom social media has become the new enemy. It is the target of antediluvian bureaucratic suspicion; authoritarian politicians are busily spotting Maoists in online cartoons.
Social media is not the enemy. It is simply an amoral technology, a busy highway, waiting to be used by all. If dissenters and propagandists are using Twitter to spread their message, then the government must also jump in and use social media to fight the information war. Twitter has created an entirely new world where public figures are no longer distant idols but readily accessible. Barack Obama’s massively successful Twitter campaign reveals how well politicians can use new media.
Hatespeak on social media, not social media itself, is the real enemy of a liberal democracy. Hate speech cannot be dressed up as free speech. Free speech is the right to canvass for a political cause, the right to criticise the government. Governed by Art 19 of the Constitution, it’s a legally defined freedom. Free speech is not the right to say what you want. If social media is a gigantic public highway, all those using it must not only follow rules but also accept the inevitability of some surveillance.
A deluge of profane language, abuse of religious icons and vicious attacks on minorities are the hallmarks of Twitter and Facebook in India. Twitter in India, almost completely dominated by right-wing religious nationalism, has been called a “hate factory”, a forum to vent foul-mouthed loathing not only of public figures but of minorities and those perceived as ‘pseudo-secular’ or ‘sickular’. The role of rumour in a riot has been established by many historians. The role of creating the religious ‘enemy’ is another potent force in creating religious polarisation. If social media becomes a tool in the hand of a communal rioter, then the government has every right to enforce the law, and absolute freedom must take second place to protection of life and liberty.
Untrammelled licence makes freedom meaningless. In India, if freedom is interpreted as the majority’s right to call the Prophet or Jesus outrageous names, then our harmony will descend to anarchy and only fascism will be seen as deliverance. Violent action is just a step away from violent thought. Terrorist chatter on the net is routinely monitored across the world; hate chatter must be monitored too.
As a television journalist, I get a daily dose of abuse on Twitter, an exercise in character-building endurance. Some examples: “Bitch, you deserve to be stripped and raped publicly.” “Randi ki aulad maadar.... why u r not covering assam riots, mulloh ne ma ch..i hai kya behan..... Dalli saali Rahul ki.” In fact, I and other women journalists on Twitter regularly receive threats of sexual assault, showing that on Twitter, criminals do not fear the law. Self-professed supporters of Narendra Modi and Subramanian Swamy specialise in abusing what they call “paid media”. For them, “whore”, “bitch”, “Congress pimp”, “Muslim-loving whore”, “Congress-funded media” are all in a day’s work. While abusing journalists is a far lesser evil than abusing religious minorities, the daily invective and defamation by hundreds of Twitter handles speaks of an organised campaign.
In the mainstream media, we constantly debate the limits of regulation. The NBSA, the watchdog body for electronic news media of which I’m a member, advocates a firm “no” to censorship but “yes” to responsible content. Retired CJI J.S. Verma, who presides over the NBSA, says irresponsible content, straining the limits of legality, will only bring down the heavy hand of government censorship and jeopardise a precious freedom. Be responsible and free, not lawless and thus censored. Currently, any talk of regulation on social media is met by howls about free speech. Twitter and Facebook respond fast to “take down” notices by peer review. But they say they cannot pre-screen content.
Pre-screening and censorship will indeed mean the loss of a precious new media. But that alone cannot be reason enough not to intelligently track hate speech. Who defines hate speech? No, it can’t be the NKVD-minded folk in Shastri Bhavan who believe the state knows best. What is needed is for social media stakeholders, legal experts and government to come together and create a detailed code of hate speech and the punishment each offence will carry. In some cases FIRs must be registered and convictions must happen.
The social media footprint of a potential homegrown Anders Breivik, Norway’s right-wing mass killer, must attract the law’s attention. Arbitrary censorship is terrible; abuse of freedom, even worse.
CNN-IBN deputy editor @sagarikaghose is author of Blind Faith.