The year 2014 came with an unprecedented subscription of social media. Millions of Facebook and Twitter posts were made as politicians, sportspersons and celebrities breathed more life into the platform.
The most popular tweet of the year, the one Prime Minister Narendra Modi sent out after his election victory, had 70,000 retweets — more than four times the most popular tweet of 2013; Sachin Tendulkar’s response to the #ThankYouSachin trend which got 17,000 retweets.
On an average, some of the most popular Indian Twitter personalities saw a more than 50% increase in their followers. Actor Aamir Khan who has been on the micro-blogging website for four years now — gained almost a third of his followers in 2014.
But with the boom came problems unforeseen.
Can one be arrested for a Facebook post? How absolute is the right to free speech on Twitter? Can a person be culpable for receiving a WhatsApp message that contains, say, child pornography?
These dilemmas have left users and authorities flummoxed. And, when a platform wields enough influence to be seen as a factor in the largest democratic exercise in the world, such conundrums cannot be ignored.
The issues are not limited to law enforcement or its overreach. Offensive content and online harassment mushroomed as the platform catalysed India’s conversations.
Ridicule is the internet’s bread and butter, and social media has emerged as the biggest enabler. In November, when a Doordarshan anchor made several gaffes while covering an international film festival in Goa, she became the target of incisive jokes and criticism. The widespread derision apparently left her feeling suicidal.
Abuse, too, became frequent. Journalist Rajdeep Sardesai, a popular Twitter personality, received “vile abuse on twitter, my family targeted, death threats on phone!” What drew such attacks at him was a tweet wherein he referred to his dog Nemo and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the same vein.
Social media, where features such as check-ins now give away physical locations, also saw harassment and rowdyism transcending virtual barriers. In June this year, Pune techie Mohsin Shaikh was murdered by a mob for apparently uploading indecorous morphed pictures of late Shiv Sena patriarch Bal Thackeray and Maratha icon Chhatrapati Shivaji on Facebook. Except Shaikh never uploaded or morphed for those pictures.
The flurry of information on these platforms, and the restless manner in which it is shared, has often resulted in cases when misinformation has done the rounds.
The most recent example is that of a photograph that went viral in the immediate aftermath of the grisly school attack in Pakistan’s Peshawar. The image showed a bloodied shoe, apparently of a child, purporting to be that of one of the 132 killed. The image, in reality, was not from Pakistan.
A more incredulous instance was that of a viral story claiming Ebola victims were ‘rising from the dead’ and ‘turning into zombies’.
Hoaxes like these, although mostly amusing, can lead to extreme reactions such as riots and panic.
The way ahead
Problems like these have started a debate over the larger aspect of free speech and legal intervention.
Anja Kovacs, who directs the Internet Democracy Project in the Capital, says laws may not be the answer.
“The solution is not censorship but making sure everyone has the right skills,” she says, stressing how there is no need of “infantalising adults”.
Kovacs explained that as the platform scales up, so will its consequences. Nonetheless, the amount of credible information out there is easily much more than hoaxes, she added.
Voices in the Indian judiciary seem to agree with that line of thinking.
The Supreme Court recently issued a stern warning to the government over gagging social media.
Certain controversial provisions of the Information Technology (IT) Act — namely 66A and 74 — are often invoked by authorities to muzzle free speech on social media. Lawyers believe that the two sections are grossly exploited.
Among those at the receiving end was Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen, facing a case in Uttar Pradesh for posting certain ‘objectionable comments’ in a tweet in 2012. She is one of the many petitioners before the SC seeking to declare the IT act sections ‘unconstitutional’.
Another petitioner against the law cited the November 2012 arrests of two girls in Mumbai, who had made a Facebook post against the shutdown of the metropolis during Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray’s funeral procession.
The solution really lies in “self-censorship” and “media literacy”, says Kovacs. “Don’t believe everything you see.”
Read the full, illustrated article on the Hindustan Times website.