Muzzling, Mobs and Social Networking Mirrors

If you are crying hoarse about being a victim of and in the social media and gathering support for being targeted, then it is hypocritical to dismiss any government move to form a committee that would restrict the social media from acting irresponsibly.

Surprisingly, the freedom of speech lobby that gets tetchy over its own abuse is the one that opposes such restraint.

Press Council of India Chairman Justice Markandey Katju has written to the Communications and Information Technology minister Kapil Sibal to set up a panel “so that the social media can be regulated and suitable legislation be initiated on the basis of the recommendations of this committee”. He further states:

“Unless this is done irreparable damage may be done to individuals or to society, as the material shown may be inflammatory or defamatory or otherwise harmful to people…a new practice has developed in the social media of its misuse for defaming people/groups/religions/communities.”

Why is everyone so upset? When the minister had proposed it last year, the protest had taken on a febrile “Kapil Sibal Is An Idiot” tag. This reveals how such debates go. If there is no sensible argument and it comes down to merely snapping at idiocy, then it works in favour of ‘censorship’.

Sibal has said:

“We have to take care of the sensibilities of our people…Cultural ethos is very important to us.” 

One may contest this, although one can be reasonably sure that even our interactions are rooted in culture, even though it may not be overtly so.

Some say such moves are to protect politicians of the ruling party, and right now it is the infamous CD of Abhishek Manu Singhvi. Have we forgotten that the Congress party had immediately ticked off those politicians who used such sites to vent their anger or questioned policies, whether it was Shashi Tharoor, Omar Abdulla or Digvijay Singh?

Does the general public approve of such ‘connections’ the leaders make with a limited group of people, although it does get reported in the mainstream media?

Forums such as these act as extra-constitutional authorities where elected representatives can clarify their position, blame others, wreak vengeance, and campaign for themselves or against others. How is one to accept their version? Why are the usual official channels not used? Why must government policy be announced and discussed on walls and in tweets where there is more likely to be a back and forth of sound bytes rather than a sensible discussion?

A code should apply to people across the board and not merely to politicians or those in the government.

The users of these sites are angry. Are they any different from the Anna Hazare movement types when they dismiss a Katju or a Sibal and yet get into a huddle for their own defence? Who do they represent? Who are they to decide on how much slander is good enough? How many people flag abusive comments? Let us face it: Most people like a good fight. In fact, some are made precisely because of the notoriety they gain by such networking. Their visibility increases and so does the fan base. Is it necessarily on intrinsic merit?

Those who are talking about how those who hate them must also be allowed to have their say are largely popular because of just such infamy. This ‘freedom’ affords them statues even if it is to facilitate pigeon droppings. It is the cult of the dishonourable, and some will fall for it. Take any issue in recent times and it has become more exaggerated due to this word-of-mouth publicity. YouTube videos and CDs go viral and, much like terrorists claiming their hand in bomb blasts, these denizens claim to play a role in every major happening – whether it is the Arab Spring, exposing leaders, bringing scams to light, pushing the anti-corruption agenda, or showing a politician dropping his pants.

We have governments for a reason. We have laws for a reason. Do they work well always? No. Does it mean that forming groups and fighting them online will change the reality? This is the frightening aspect. How many of those commenting in morsel sizes are truly attuned to such reality? True, famous people are on networking sites, reasonable people are there, people who matter are there. My question is: Are they also not in places where it counts and are they not capable of pushing for change from where they operate? They can and some do.

If the idea is that one gets to see all stripes of thought, then there are other places that offer the same. The regular media outlets and the offbeat ones where commentary is at least more indepth, though not always so. It gives us a choice to dispute. For those who think that news is forced down us, how are they so certain that what passes for exchange of ideas on such websites does not do the same? There is bound to be an element of incestuousness, and it is a community too. Therefore, it is a bit amusing that when there is a mention of incendiary talk that hurts religious and communal sentiments, there are sniggers. Yet, when this community of networkers thinks it is in danger of being muzzled, there is a hue and cry. What are they displeased about? That their space is being occupied, right? Their freedom shackled. It just so happens that there are different kinds of freedom, and much as we dislike what we deem to be non-liberal thought, also has a right to exercise its freedom.

There are positive aspects to such sites, but the opposition to a proposed code leaves one with a slightly distorted picture of the whole anti-system. It really is not a contrarian viewpoint but a ghetto that wants its own protection. Not everyone is capable of self-censorship. There are loose cannons. There is anonymity. The idea that it is the only truly democratic medium free of vested interests is a fallacy. Are there no agendas being propagated on the internet, no vested interests?

What about Google’s position? It says:

“We work really hard to make sure that people have as much access to information as possible, while also following the law. This means that when content is illegal, we abide by local law and take it down. And even where content is legal, but violates our own terms and conditions, we take that down too, once we’ve been notified. But when content is legal and doesn’t violate our policies, we won’t remove it just because it’s controversial, as we believe that people’s differing views, so long as they’re legal, should be respected and protected.”

This is fine because it is making big bucks. We forget that in October last year, it was giving out information about surfing habits to America, France, Germany, Britain and India. A report had mentioned then that “Google included the total number of user accounts targeted, instead of just the number of requests made by police, courts and other agencies. Google is trying to get users to share even more tidbits about their lives on social networking service Plus, which has attracted over 40 million account holders since it debuted in June as an alternative to Facebook.” Is this not more intrusive? Or do we prefer such covert operations?

If the government does manage to make some headway with this, then we must understand that it could possibly help others as well. That should be the purpose. It could be an anti-government crusader who is abused and can seek recourse to action. It could be an individual whose identity is being tarnished.

It is facile to assume that discourse against the establishment will stop. Before social networking, we threw out the British, we threw out a government that imposed the Emergency, scandals were exposed. That will continue not because of, but despite, revolutionaries with hash tags who ensure a trend for a day or so. 15 minutes of fame has just become a lengthened shadow.

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(c)Farzana Versey


  1. FV,

    To me, the idea of regulating the content on internet is an outrage. More importantly, it will turn into a Frankenstein's monster. If it goes through, we will soon have extortionists who will have no other job but to fish for 'offensive' material and threaten other users. They may even be holding official positions.

    Freedom of expression is meaningless without freedom to offend.

  2. with freedom of speech comes pertinent responsibility and it has been dilemma for modern govt to control internet, I remember Clinton wanted to fund a particular chip called 'clippers' for encryption but it failed, INTERNET can't be controlled! Govt all across the world must realize this brazen fact and move on, there would always be bad eggs who would misuse freedom and we can go after them by the use of law and not censorship

  3. F&F:

    The monster's in the room. I think we should realise that some code of conduct is necessary. The freedom to offend must then be ready to be offended right back. This does not happen.

    Liberal lobbies do not ever accept criticism.


    'Control' is not the word; it is consensus and the option to seek reprieve.


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