A very thin line separates right from wrong

The debate on the Internet freedom, especially right to express dissent using technologies such as Twitter, has been beaten to pulp. Nonetheless, it is a lively issue with as many opinions as there are people using such media.

Everybody is aware of the recent spate of blocking many Twitter users such as @kanchangupta and @barbarindian (just to mention a few, you can get a more comprehensive list here) and some of the accounts still remain inaccessible (although you can access them via third-party Twitter clients).

There have been sharp differences between people who endorse a certain degree of restraint and censorship and people who demand complete freedom of expression, even if it means throwing vituperations and vilest of abuses upon individuals of contradictory ideologies and beliefs. The latest is this article written by Sagarika Ghosh. She says:

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.

Although as usual, she has used her article to portray minority communities as targets of the majority community, all in all, there is some merit to what she is saying. Sometimes there is madness out there. The kind of language people use will simply appall you and you will wonder, “Do normal people really talk this way in real life?”

To put the point across, she cites some examples from the dose of insulting Tweets she often gets:

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.”

Although I’m not justifying use of such language, one needs to see the picture in its entirety. I know this is very bad language and I would not like somebody from my family even to read this, but why do particular journalists and public figures attract such attention? Is it just because what they think, or there is more to that?

On the Internet, some people are attacked just for having a difference of opinion. For instance there was a massive hate campaign against Anita Sarkeesian for inveighing against rampant sexism on the Internet in general and videogames in particular. Compared to the attack on Anita and many more individuals in the West, what happens in India is kids stuff.

But people like Sagarika Ghosh and Barkha Dutt are attacked less for the opinions and ideologies they hold and more for what they are seen as: agents and pimps (to use the language used by the dissenters) of Congress. There is plenty of evidence on the Internet as well as elsewhere that these journalists often manipulate reality to mould it in the favour of Congress.

The abuses are also a manifestation of the anger that hasn’t been allowed to vent out over the past six decades. Since independence Hindus have always had to justify their existence and their way of life. They always have to carry out their activities in the context of the minority population, especially Muslims. The journalists of such ilk and the politicians (especially Congress and its supporting parties) openly flaunt their communal inclinations to sustain a formidable vote bank. They know that the Hindu society is divided into various castes and classes and they are never going to (at least in the foreseeable future) consolidate into a strong vote bank.

Hence it is a well-entrenched conspiracy to keep the Hindu vote divided and the minorities vote in a constant state of peril. Since minorities, especially Muslims, are always kept on the edge, it is like a tinderbox. Even small scuffles between two individuals escalate into massive riots due to these machinations. Before the Internet, two things acted in the favour of Congress and its cohorts: total control over the means of communication and information dissemination and a total twisting of historical facts with correct facts known only to a few individuals who couldn’t access publishing and electronic media.

The Internet completely changed the game. Since it can be accessed by everybody, everybody can become a publisher as well as an information consumer. More importantly, dissemination of information lies in the hands of common folks and not conventional media, which could easily be manipulated or curtailed prior to the arrival of the Internet.

Now what happens is, as soon as somebody tries to spread misinformation or sow the seeds of bunkum, he or she is immediately taken to task by people who know the real thing. Also, previously people would say anything without caring whether they were right or wrong. This no longer remains possible when there are a couple of hundred people to point out your stupidity and lack of knowledge.

So even before Twitter, these people were, sort of villains. Previously they were ensconced within their respective ivory towers. When they started using Twitter, they thought people will always be in awe and hence grateful that these high-and-mighty interacting with hoi polloi. Totally opposite happened. We all know what I mean by that.

Yes, people get carried away and sometimes they say really obnoxious things. But the point is, it also happens in the real world. If somebody abuses you on the road you can either abuse back and even beat up that person (if you don’t have to fear retaliation) or you can lodge an FIR.

Sagarika Ghosh compares Twitter to a busy highway, although I often like to compare it to a meeting place where people come together, propagate ideas, express dissent and spread information. Till then, it is good. But what happens if people start using abusive language? Abuse happens. Religious and communal abuse also happens although it is not unique to a single community. I have also seen people having Muslim and Christian handles broadcasting all sorts of hateful messages. Can this lead to social unrest on the streets?

It hasn’t been proven directly. The recent controversy over blockage originated from the riots in Assam over illegal Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh. Social media had nothing to do with that.

The unrest in Mumbai where a few thousand Muslims had gathered to protest against “atrocities” on Muslims in Assam and Burma was also not triggered by Twitter. Yes, there was some inflammatory material on websites and that material was used by local newspapers to instigate people. But there is no direct evidence that social media contributed to the state of unrest the country recently witnessed.

Even the mass exodus of the people from the north-east from various metropolitan cities was triggered by an SMS campaign and this again, had nothing to do with social media.

Nonetheless, abundant vile manifests on Twitter. How to deal with it? The first option is blocking those people. It is same as moving away from a place where people are hurling abuses at you. But sometimes you feel, this is not fair. I mean, if a person abuses me simply because I don’t agree with him, I would like to get back at him. I cannot abuse him back because that is not my style. Get him blocked? This is an option, but such blocking coming from the government can be a dangerous game. We saw what happened this time. In the name of curtailing hate speech and rumor mongering, even those Twitter accounts that were never known for broadcasting hate speech were blocked simply because they continuously questioned the government’s policies vis-a-vis economy and communal dynamics. These handles also thwarted misinformation campaigns launched by various journalists known to be close to the current government. The blocking campaign was so obvious that people were directly taking names.

So in such an environment, how can we believe laws that are intended to restrict hate speech and abuses? There are two problems here:

  1. How do you define “hate speech”?
  2. How do you define “abuses”?

Simply because I’m pointing out faults in a particular religion doesn’t mean that I am indulging in hate speech but fanatics from that religion may construe it that way. Even the government, inclined towards appeasing a particular minority group may block me simply for having an opinion about a particular religion. Journalists and intellectuals may report me to the concerned government agencies for doing some plain speak. So this can turn into a dangerous trend.

Having said that, social media being an integral part of the mainstream these days, we do need a mechanism to curtail vicious individuals hailing from various religions and communities. People from Facebook and Twitter – contemporary popular social networking platforms – will have to arrive at a consensus, just as everybody agrees that there should be a zero tolerance policy for child pornography. It may take some time but eventually we will need the mechanism to control hate speech – real hate speech – and abusive of people. You can’t call me a “whore” simply because I don’t think the way you do. I would like to report you, I would like to make sure that the medium that you are abusing is denied to you. Of course, censoring is not the solution.

Something self-regulatory like Wikipedia?