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Free Speech Or Fear Tactics? The Unchecked Rise Of Right-Wing Online Abuse

Written by Yusra Khan

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Unchecked Rise Of Right-Wing Online Abuse
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A microblogging site is no town square, but the influence of X (formerly Twitter) cannot be understated when it comes to deciphering the health of public discourse. Indian pro-government media personalities often hold more sway in this regard than algorithmic bot activity when it comes to harassment and targeted bullying in the online sphere. Recently, O.P. Jindal University, a leading private college in Sonipat, suspended two students on account of violating the Code of Conduct. The context was a discussion on the inauguration of the Ram Temple, which was organized by a student group called ‘Revolutionary Students League’ (RSL) and a video clip that went viral.

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Titled ‘Ram Mandir: A Farcical Project of Brahmanical Hindutva Fascism’, the free-wheeling discussion included a short reading list: Varavara Rao and Richard King, with a call for the student body for an open discussion on the subject. Video shots posted on the group’s public page were quickly picked up by prominent right-wing handles that started demanding action, tagging the university’s founder, Naveen Jindal - who has since joined the BJP.

It was really a non-issue, before the video clip blew up online, portraying the conversation in an out-of-context fashion.” says Reshabh Bajaj, the lawyer representing the two students, Mukundan Nair and Ramnit Kaur. In a student magazine interview, Nair says he and others from the RSL soon started getting rape and death threats from across the country.

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“The college took suo-moto cognizance, which is also pretty atypical. It was not as if a student complained from within the campus. This isn’t standard protocol, and we’re waiting on the pending appeal in challenge to the Jindal administration’s decision.” Bajaj adds further.

Executive interference in academic spaces is becoming bolder, and so is the online army of bullies that target academicians and students that contravene the ruling party’s Hindutva line. The influence of these well-networked nodes of power on social media has the ability to transcend virtual spaces.

Public-facing intellectual work is increasingly being stifled through explicit as well as camouflaged state bullying. In January 2021, the Ministry of Education in India put out guidelines requiring pre-approval for online seminars and events conducted in public universities that discussed “internal events” pertaining to the country. In this way, more than overt bans, it is the chilling effect that provides a more sustained ground for limiting scholarship and public engagement.

This is further bolstered by toxic ecosystems on social media, where many academicians choose to publicize their work and research findings. One prominent trope for discrediting government critics is the allegation that “left-wing extremism” in India is fueled by the Ford Foundation and billionaire hedge fund manager George Soros. Documentaries, academic events, activities of charity groups, anything that does not support the ruling ideology is supposedly organized at the behest of a transnational force that seeks to destabilize the country through ominous funding and sold-out scholarship. This is a recurring narrative that informs right-wing ecosystems and publications, quick to resurface when there is civil society mobilization at play for a social issue. These are spearheaded by clearly affiliated personalities that are well-connected with state-friendly media anchors and local politicians.

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As findings in a 2022 study by researchers in Columbia University suggest, algorithmic bot activity was of minimal value in the hate campaign against the scholars involved in the three-day online conference, titled Dismantling Global Hindutva. Coordinated campaigns were conducted through a “very active and engaged concentration of users with wide reach” that were supported by a peer network of right-wing influencers. The report was borne out of digital ethnography of an online slander campaign in the wake of the DGH conference held between 10-12 September of 2021.

In an interview to the Guardian, various speakers and organizers had confirmed getting extremely violent death threats. “Based, among other things, on the cut-and-paste nature of a great number of the messages received, it is clear that the conference has been under attack from an orchestrated campaign by one or more fringe extremist groups.” said Ben Baer, the director of the South Asian Studies programme at Princeton University, a co-sponsor of the multi-departmental event.

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While the government’s role is more oblique in such cases, individual politicians and affiliated personalities manage to fuel online campaigns that result in real-time harm and vicious trolling. These have obvious direct effects, such as silencing particular critics and voices of scholarship. They also have long-term, much more insidious effects, such as depoliticizing campuses, allowing decidedly narrow scholarship that is devoid of engagement with tangible social realities, and self-censorship in online and offline self-expression.

This evokes what Maria Ressa, a Filipino and American journalist terms as “patriotic trolling”, a phenomena where non-state actors have tacit state approval to “pound” critics online, to intimidate them without getting the government’s hands dirty. Online platforms have a responsibility to limit such campaigns and create healthier boundaries for online discourse. However, the opposite seems to be happening. Upon taking control of Twitter in 2022, Elon Musk disbanded its Trust and Safety Council, an advisory group which had taken form in 2016 to address issues of hate speech and other forms of harassment, among other things. Meanwhile on social media, cases of targeted harassment, doxxing and even explicit hate speech are becoming routine, and even worse, unremarkable in their display of power.

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Comforted by the knowledge that if things go south, the consequences wouldn’t be grave enough to warrant worry.

Yusra Khan is a freelance writer based in Delhi, with a focus on culture, tech policy and human rights

Disclaimer: The above is a sponsored post, the views expressed are those of the sponsor/author and do not represent the stand and views of Outlook Editorial.

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