I am an Indian.
I come from a country that boasts of having the largest democracy and home for four of the world’s major religions. The land that provides shelter to more than 1.2 billion people has been ripped off time and again by opportunists.
At present, India is facing a situation where communal tensions are burning in the North Eastern belt of India. The riots have affected more than 400,000 people and have killed more than 77. The aftermath has triggered rumors that North Eastern people who are living in other parts of the country are not safe. This led them to press the panic button and we saw thousands of North Easterners rushing back to their homes to save their lives.
The Government of India has blamed social media for spreading hate speech and inciting the riots. This is not the first time that the government has done this and they have already taken action – 245 photo uploading websites have been blocked, 80 plus internet pages and Facebook accounts have been blocked, six parody accounts of the Prime Minister’s Office have been blocked. Subsequently, it has pressured social media giants Facebook, Twitter, and Google to obey them. There is nothing wrong in removing hate speech but the bigger question today is:
1. Riots have happened before social networks were known to humans. So is banning or monitoring the only option?
2. Will this trend of hate speech removal also put a lid on freedom of speech?
Banning or monitoring is not an option
The world has seen social media fuel the Egyptian revolution and then the London riots. Sadly India has not learned from these events. It has not only failed in understanding the dynamics of social media but also how to respond to it. Politicians, still on websites to show their online presence, were caught napping during the Lokpal movement last year. After that the government pulled up its socks but only to create a presence that was blowing its own trumpet. It was not just the government officials but all other members of opposition too who were building a social media presence that wanted to broadcast political messages but did not want to “Listen.”
However, social media is a two-edged sword and things go viral like wildfire. But can’t the government use this viral feature of social media as a weapon against hate? The PMO India is present on Twitter and it can very well use the account to try and kill rumors and boost confidence. There are so many influential Indian celebrities and politicians with whom the government can join hands and start a positive campaign, the way brands these days sell their products on social media via an influential celebrity. Alas the PMO’s Twitter handle is busy tweeting about the Prime Minister’s mundane work schedule!
It’s not that the Indian government is unaware about the positive side of social media. For example, Nirupama Rao, India’s Foreign Secretary used Twitter during the evacuation of Indians at the time of the Libyan crisis.
Are we going to see a new definition of Freedom of Speech in India?
The government is reportedly trying to frame new IT laws where content could be monitored. Earlier in the day, the government had blocked Twitter accounts of journalists and there has been a daylong uproar on Twitter via #GOIBlocks. People are questioning whether the government intends to suppress voices against them under the pretext of hate speech.
So the coming days are going to be interesting. Social media, which has already become a national debate here in India, will see much more happening. The mood can be judged by this tweet from popular author and Twitter celebrity, Chetan Bhagat
Welcome to a world that is rapidly changing the way we look at social media.
Prasant Naidu is Founder and Blogger at Lighthouse Insights – a site that exclusively talks about Indian social media news. Loves to experiment in social media and believes social media is a game changer for SME’s. Twitter- @LHInsights.
Illustration: Photo of Delhi’s Red Fort by Mark Schaefer