Monday, Sep 25, 2023

Ahmedabad, Muzaffarnagar & Now Bengal: How Social Media Is Used To Spread Communal Hatred

Ahmedabad, Muzaffarnagar & Now Bengal: How Social Media Is Used To Spread Communal Hatred

Like ultrasound machines, social media platforms in India are being widely misused by users. Experts say the current legal framework governing IT has proven inadequate to protect the public from violence triggered by online posts.

PTI file photo

It would seem that social media platforms in India -- from Facebook and Twitter to YouTube and WhatsApp -- are going the way of the ultrasound machine. The ultrasound machines, used to detect foetal abnormalities and life-threatening conditions that affect the abdomen, heart and other internal organs, were introduced into India with the intention to save lives and cut medical costs. Yet, within a few years, in India, they were being widely used to detect the gender of a foetus, leading to large drops in sex ratio. The ultrasound machine's pervasive misuse also invited a slew of laws tailored to prevent this.

Ever since the mob violence in rural West Bengal, spurred by pictures posted on Facebook, a similar dilemma confronts social networks. This is because what happened in West Bengal is not isolated. Muzaffarnagar riots in 2013 are attributed to a 'fake' video circulated on Facebook, WhatsApp and YouTube. The 2015 mass exodus of northeastern students and workers from Bangalore was due to social media posts. In 2012, a video of violence against Muslims in Burma triggered violence in Ahmedabad. 

"There is a parallel between what happened with ultrasound machines and what we are seeing happen with social media. It is that post facto legal solutions are going to become very important," says Parminder Jeet Singh, executive director, IT For Change, an NGO working on equity and social justice. This view is that the current legal framework governing information technology has proven inadequate to protect the public from violence triggered by online posts.

The concern is that instead of social media building a community of people and deeper social relations, it is also spurring conflict. Recently, the Bhim Sena and the Not In My Name protests were produced as a result of Facebook and WhatsApp networking but far more sinister things leading to deaths are also taking place online.

The virtual outbreak of old-fashioned rivalries over community gender and religion, by spilling into the non-virtual world, have not only exposed that these networks are as susceptible to racism, sexism and communalism as their users are. They have also created a fresh challenge for those who seek to protect freedom of expression.

Apar Gupta, one of the lawyers who successfully represented the PUCL on a Public Interest Litigation challenging Section 66A of the Information Technology Act in 2015, "acknowledges" that violence spurred by social media posts is a challenge for freedom of expression. "I have lately noticed a certain nostalgia for the likes of a Section 66A. Maybe what we need is to better handle prosecutions in cases such as West Bengal or Bangalore," he says.

Section 66A was denounced by freedom of speech activists as draconian. The Supreme Court ultimately curtailed the state's power to prosecute those offending the IT Act. The section had led to several arrests on flimsy grounds, such as of a Mumbai cartoonist charged with sedition in 2012 after posting his work online.

Now, Gupta raises a concern, of the pendulum swinging the other way, to revive strong censorship. In 2015, lawyers and activists had hoped to build a wider challenge against all laws that are heavy-handed on censorship. Today's crisis threatens to whet appetites for censorship.

"At the far end of today's nostalgia might be a law that censors journalists rather than tackle perpetrators," he says.

"When riots take place on the basis of WhatsApp or Facebook posts, then it is not just a freedom of expression issue," feels Parminder Jeet. He doesn't support section 66A or anything similarly dramatic.

In this view, India's new social situation -- 500 million World Wide Web users owning smartphones -- is welcome. "Yet, we need to radically revisit the law. We need, almost, a new social contract."

This, he feels, if grounded on Constitutional values and backed by regulators independent of the executive, might better account for the nuances of Indian cultural, religious and social fault lines.

Have no doubt -- the violence spurred by the social media is perfectly illegal in India already. Events in West Bengal, Bangalore, Muzaffarnagar or Ahmedabad are criminalised by a slew of laws against hate speech, unrest or public disorder, for instance the Indian Penal Code's sections 505, 153(a) and 295 A. The experts insist on structural reform, to free the police from legislative control in particular.

"There are enough laws but the possible problem is that a lot of these posts turn out to be by politically aligned people, office bearers or employees of political parties. So, these things are being done systematically and low prosecutions increase the problem," says Gupta.

"We need one strong verdict to stop such violence. Talk of more censorship is a trap set by those who incite conflict in the first place," says Subho Ray, president, Internet and Mobile Association of India.

Again, it's a lot like what happened with the ultrasound machine. "Since it is possible, in other countries, to detect gender without risking a woman's life, the problem exists where there are pre-existing preferences for male children," as Anita Gurumurthy, co-founder of IT For Change says.

"With social norms remaining the same, the law may never fill the justice gap entirely."

This leaves society -- and politics -- to determine how far the law should go to regulate hospitals, parents, social networks and all our machines.




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