April 03, 2020
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Block Or Bust

A response to Sagarika Ghose: We don't need government committees to control the internet. Countering malicious rumour-mongering and using the ‘block’ tool is enough.

Block Or Bust

In her column advocating social media regulation, Sagarika Ghose starts by offering the usual homilies to free speech. And then this curious assertion follows: Twitter in India is almost completely dominated by ‘Right-wing nationalism’—those dubbed ‘Internet Hindus’ by Ghose herself. Like much of the pristinely data-free discourse in India, Ghose’s argument is demonstrably false. Here’s just one datum: The Indian Twitterati with maximum followers include celebrities such as Sachin Tendulkar and Amitabh Bachchan as well as prominent journalists like Barkha Dutt and Rajdeep Sardesai. One may agree or disagree with these worthies but one would be hard pressed to argue that any of these are ‘right-wingers’ let alone hate-mongers. The only ‘right-wingers’ with large following on Twitter are prominent politicians such as Sushma Swaraj and Narendra Modi. And they have never been accused of hate speech—at least not on Twitter. 

An unfortunate aspect of social media is that it often serves as an echo chamber exaggerating its own importance. In the larger scheme of things, social media is still minuscule in India with limited influence but sometimes it appears to drive the media discourse. The English media has always been too Delhi-centric; now it may too Twitter obsessed. Surely, there are far more important challenges in India than alleged hate being spewed on Twitter?

The internet offers all an opportunity to speak but very few have the privilege of being heard. Ask any non-celebrity, and she will tell you of the years of toil it takes to build a small audience—forget about competing with Bollywood superstars or television anchors. This is not to argue that ‘hate-mongers’ don’t exist on social media but that they are not the dominant force as Ghose pretends.

Subsequently, Ghose offers the litany of abuses which have been directed at her during her Twitter career. In an ideal world, abuse would have no place in civil discourse. Unfortunately, we don’t live in that world, and it is true that the conversation on internet is often coarse and uncouth.

Those who oppose censorship don’t necessarily condone abuse. In fact, they are frequently subjected to the same treatment. However, they understand an important truth: Freedom protects everyone.  And it is the same freedom which allows Arundhati Roy to pen 10,000 word polemics virtually declaring India a terror state. That’s exactly how it should be. Voltaire’s most famous saying may be apocryphal but nothing still better captures the true spirit of free speech.

Ghose is also conflating personal vitriol directed against her with the likes of Anders Breivik. If that was the case then millions of mass-murderers are walking the city of Delhi alone: Observe how abuses fly in case of even the most minor traffic fracas!

But what about the bigots? It is undeniable that they exist online as they do in the real world. But whether they shout on the internet or whisper within the confine of their homes, their hearts would remain the same. And where does this stop? Should India institute a Rorschach test before people are allowed to vote so that the bigots can be excluded? If not, then what purpose is to be served by ‘hunting’ them down on Twitter? Sunlight is still the best disinfectant.

Liberal democracies thrive not by suppressing freedom but because the baser instincts of the few are kept in check by the goodness of many.  That is how Indian democracy and secularism—despite the occasional hiccups—have survived for the last 60 years. Let us show a little more faith in the Indian people!

As an aside, the religious in India hardly need more protection; it is the non-religious whose rights are frequently violated because a book or a movie hurts sentiments and therefore needs to be banned. Otherwise, we all know the consequences: riots would follow and random people would be brazenly assaulted while the state watches silently from the sidelines. Religion in India needs more mockery, and not less.

What is truly worrying is the inability of the Indian state to adequately address and punish political and religious violence. There can be no justification for violence and the argument that insulting certain Gods should mean a descent into fascism is dangerously naïve. It may not be Ghose’s intention but it willy-nilly justifies violence. Indeed, she is merely reiterating the Hindu Right’s claim that because M.F Hussain allegedly insulted religious symbols, it was kosher to trash his exhibitions.

But what about social media’s role in fomenting riots? The Blackberry messenger and other platforms like Twitter and Facebook were blamed for facilitating rumour-mongering during the London riots of 2011. However, a study by British daily Guardian reports:

Despite helping rumours spread at great speed, Twitter has an equal and opposite power to dispel them – often in the space of two or three hours, particularly if the counter-evidence is strong.

Perhaps, those with lakhs of followers on Twitter should focus more on countering malicious rumour-mongering rather than offering further publicity to the abusive and the vitriolic. As Ghose herself concedes, technology is not the villain here; then why not harness its unmatched power for doing good? Its processes may not always be clear but the internet still has the ability to filter the credible from the false. Still, those who openly call for violence on the internet can certainly be prosecuted as it happened during the London riots. But that can happen within the ambit of existing laws.

Finally, for argument’s sake, let’s admit that regulating the internet is desirable. How will this be achieved especially considering Ghose’s stated distrust for the mandarins of Shastri Bhavan? This question is fundamentally important because it is here that the rubber truly hits the road. Here’s how it is framed:

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.

Could she have been more ridiculous: Yes, she could have proposed an inter-ministerial group headed by Pranab Mukherjee!

What it really underlines is that even those who frequent social media don’t truly understand the nature of internet. It is not an extension of a news channel website or a print newspaper which can be policed by the Press Council of India (and pray, how effective is PCI?). On the internet, each individual is his own editor—that is its true magic. Attempts to reduce it to a curated extension of newspapers would always be vigorously resisted because it militates against its essential nature. People on social media don’t like to be told what to think. That is precisely why they are on it.

For the more sensitive folks, there is no need for government committees or stakeholder meetings to control the internet. All you really have to do is to use the ‘block’ tool. As anyone who has sparred with Ghose on Twitter can attest, it is an option with which she is intimately familiar and frequently employs.

Well, just keep blocking away, Ms. Ghose!

Rohit Pradhan is a fellow at the Takshashila Institution. The views are personal.  

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