A few days ago a friend asked me if I knew someone who had the ability and inclination to help out a certain department of the central government with using social media. My friend did not name who the prospective employer was, but clearly, with even Digvijay Singh on Twitter, the Congress party is worried about social media. No surprise that this should happen in a year when the UPA government’s popularity has taken a nose-dive.
The New York Times revealed on 5 December that Kapil Sibal summoned Facebook officials and showed them a Facebook page that allegedly maligned Congress president Sonia Gandhi and said that this was unacceptable. While HRD officials refused to reveal much in that NYT copy, they must have realised that shit has hit the fan, because the next morning’s Indian Express the spin doctoring was clear: there was now a mention of allegedly derogatory pictures of Prophet Mohammed along with the Prime Minister and the Congress President (who are no doubt as sacred in his books as Prophet Mohammed).By the time he held his press conference yesterday, it became about things that Hurt Our Religious Sentiments. On the 19th anniversary of the Babri Masjid demolition, it is very interesting to see a Congress minister using religion to cover up power politics.
So let’s take the issue of Prophet Muhammed. Some days ago Syed Ali Shah Geelani called for a general strike and protests in Kashmir over a Facebook page that allegedly said blasphemous things about the Prophet. The Jammu and Kashmir government cheekily exploited the opportunity to suggest that perhaps Facebook should be banned in Kashmir. There was outrage by Kashmiris on Facebook and Twitter about it, because Kashmiris are experts at using social media in telling the world how they don’t like India. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah then clarified — on Twitter — that there was no plan to ban Facebook.
Here’s where Geelani and his supporters erred: they only ended up giving publicity to that Facebook page which so offended them. This is called the Streisand Effect: “a primarily online phenomenon in which an attempt to hide or remove a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicising the information more widely.” It is named after Barbra Streisand, American singer, actor and director who tried to have pictures of her house removed from the internet in 2003, to opposite effect. Kapil Sibal needs to learn from her experience. Now the whole world is searching for Sonia Gandhi and Prophet Muhammed on Facebook to see what offends Mr Sibal.
For some years now, many public figures have worried about social media in India, as they have been at the receiving end of what they see as abuse. These figures have included Barkha Dutt and Arindam Chaudhuri. What Dutt, Chaudhuri, Geelani, Sibaland others don’t understand is this: the internet. Here’s the thing about the internet: not everything on it should be taken seriously. Social media is one big adda; in other words, yesterday’s oral is today’s online. Just as you won’t censor someone hurling abuses at a paan or chai shop, you won’t, can’t, shouldn’t go about hunting down loonies on the internet. Give the sanctity of the written word or (photoshopped) image some rest; this is the internet stupid!
Shahsi Tharoor said yesterday that as someone at the receiving end of online abuse, he did not support censorship Quickly, he corrected himself, saying that he had spoken to Sibal and had heard with great horror what riot-inciting material Sibal had found online. So Sibal and Tharoor think social media can cause riots, but it hasn’t actually done so yet. Now that Sibal and Tharoor are telling us there’s stuff out there that could make us kill each other, some of us will go looking for it out of curiousity and…
When media celebrities like Barkha Dutt and Sagarika Ghose complain about the abuse they get on Twitter, my heart goes out to them. I have seen what it is like, but there’s also a case that they recieve much genuine criticism of news TV. Who decides what is criticism and what is ‘defamation’ or ‘libel’? Defamation and libel are legal terms, not to be thrown around loosely. There are many others who deal with online abuse and hate speech by ignoring it, by blocking trolls, by not responding to them. But if you yourself feed the trolls, you don’t have the right to complain about the trolls anymore. The social media economy is one of attention. The thumb rule is to not bring attention to those you don’t like.
So how do you trust social media? Who do you give attention to? Who is credible, who is not? There’s something called community validation. Social media is about communities that organically organise themselves, coming about through spontaneous order. That is why Hindutva nuts and leftists suffering from Radicalitis and hawks and liberals all form small circuits around them, like beehives. You can see from the number of followers how seriously they are taken by the community. If a well known Twitter user is abusing you, and some new random account with only 5 users is abusing you, you’ve got to differentiate between the two.
It is not as if celebrities are the only one who face abuse, and it is not only Mr Sibal’s party president who has a hate group against her. Ordinary mortals also face online abuse and trolling, and even school kids have a traumatic experience with bullying going online. There’s a way to deal with all of this, and ignoring things to not let them become big with some help from your attention is one way. Another way is to report it for spam, abuse or hate speech. On Twitter for instance, there are times when ordinary, non-celebrity users are found asking their followers to report some abusive account for spam, because if enough people do it, Twitter takes note and act accordingly. Similar mechanisms exist for all social networking sites. If only they existed to report for spam or block offensive ministers of the government of India or the boisterous TV anchors we all love to hate!
What is most offensive about Mr Sibal’s move is its clandestine nature. Just summon Facebook officials over to your office and ask, What is this? Why are you allowing a hate group against Sonia Gandhi? This does sound like Indira Gandhi’s Emergency. If Mr Sibal is concerned about hate speech or defamation, he should go to the court. In neighbouring Pakistan, every Tom, Dick and Harry with complaints of online hate speech approaches the Lahore High Court. In India, Kapil Sibal wants to be the high court. He wants to be judge, jury and executioner. And he wants to do it silently so we don’t get to know. If he wants us to trust him that he’s not doing censorship and it’s not about damage control for his party, he should do it publicly. He should write letters to internet companies, send legal notices or file cases if it comes to that, and put their copies out in the public domain. We can then discuss the issue. But to do it clandestinely is to betray the trust of the people of India.
It’s not just Sibal. Some months ago, Google revealed that some state governments — they were not named — had requested Google to remove a blog and several YouTube videos that were critical of chief ministers. India’s internet users need to rise up and safeguard their rights before it’s too late and this backdoor online censorship becomes the norm. It’s time for somebody to file a PIL arguing that there will be no censorship, even if it is justified, without the due process of the law and it should go through the courts. Mr Sibal may be an eminent lawyer but it’s time for us to show him he’s not as smart a politician as he thinks he is.
(First published in Mail Today this morning.)
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