Updated: Jun 30, 2021
A controversial video of a group smacking an aged Muslim man, caught fire on June 5 in Loni, Ghaziabad, wherein the Police Department has been investigating the involvement of micro blogging platforms and netizens in relation to the matter. As per the officials, the authorities are looking into whether the media clip was disseminated with the purpose of sparking communal strife. In recent times, this wasn't the only social media incident which was deployed as a bullhorn for ethnic and communal hate speech with the covert intent of inciting ferocious fallout.
Formerly, India has encountered a series of communal violence incidents, but in contemporary era of social media, these atrocities aren't only limited to the regional populace; they impair the whole nation. The cloud of misinformation, speculation, and hatred not only serve as fuel in a small ethnic conflagration but quickly swept across India as fire via social media.
Social media has cascading effects on both a person's personal and social lives. Through this piece of work, the authors aim to illuminate how social networking is gradually attempting to gain psychosocial dominance over individuals on a community level, as well as how it has evolved into an influential weapon of political demagoguery.
Social Media: A Weapon to elicit Communal Violence
Polarization amongst the communities has moved on a virtual space from the conventional word-of-mouth. It can be defined as a confrontation or action involving conflict between two or more cultural or ethnic divisions. Nearly every society in the modern world is affected by this issue. Since the internet community is so influential, it’s turning into an inflammable concern.
- Hate Speech
Incitement of hatred, particularly centered on religion is widely propagated via social media. It's also employed by unscrupulous forces to spread fear mongering hate speech in a way that makes it challenging to track down the source and hold the user accountable. For instance, the movie, Padmavat experienced a deluge of hate and abusive comments after a set of people who had not even watched it claimed that it harmed their cultural feelings.
- Fake News
As the bountiful audio-visual details of violence and hate speeches are disseminated to the public almost instantly, social media played a major part in propagating false information at a lightning speed. However, rather than rousing guilt or changing opinions, these horrific visuals of cruelty have strengthened prejudices and cemented beliefs. Communal violence breakouts, such as the Muzaffarnagar riots, the Dadri Mob Lynching, the Kathua Rape Case, and Delhi Riots have been exacerbated by the pace and intuitiveness with which social media transmits misinformation. As a result of the usage of social media in the backdrop of all of the episodes, what would have been a local dispute half a century ago has become a countrywide, and potentially a global problem.
• Human rights violations
• Results in the loss of life and public property; solely for a group’s interest
• Facilitates electoral base for ideologically inclined political parties
• Long-term detrimental effects on communal harmony and puts strain on society's cohesion
• Taints the national reputation as a diverse society in the eyes of the international community
• Stifles constitutional ideals such as equality, fraternity and secularism
Social Media Regulation: A quandary
Government agencies and social media sites have both been chastised for failing to protect data and properly regulate content. On one hand, various platforms, scholars, and politicians have praised the government-led moderation of illegal content, which includes appropriate counterbalances against arbitrary imposition. While on the other, human rights organizations and campaigners are cynical of state involvement, through the arbitrary imposition of bans, content filtering, or internet shutdowns. Another model proposed promotes the idea of "self-regulation," in which the platform itself decides on user policies and community rules.
The dilemma pertaining to hate speech or fake news legislation arises due to the current ethical-legal gap, with the administration deviating from a conservative perspective of online places and data. Owing to the comprehensive jurisdictional character of these crimes and their ease of amplification, removing content is not a panacea for combating hate speech and false news. While it is necessary to scrutinize facts and remove provocative and false information, complicated content-driven challenges have developed. For instance, both Left and Right-wing parties in India have accused Facebook of “ideological bias.” The Union Minister for Information Technology has described it as “inherently biased” towards those who favor right-wing ideology and the “latest weapon to incite internal divisions and social disturbances.” Platforms may easily hide under the guise of free speech facilitators, with little, if any, accountability. The absence of government accountability necessitates a reconsideration of the function and configuration of social media networks in order to counteract their abuse.
The Communal Violence (Prevention, Control, and Rehabilitation of Victims) Bill sat in Parliament for nine years, from 2005 to 2014, which never saw the light of the day. Likewise, the TK Viswanathan Committee, established in 2017, suggested changes to the Indian Penal Code, the Code of Criminal Procedure, and the Information Technology Act to add harsh penalties for online hate speech. However recently, the New IT Rules, 2021 proposed have been a positive step in this direction. The regulatory framework attempts to approach the self-regulation model by discouraging the publishing of inflammatory materials that may disrupt public order and removing them within 24 hours of a complaint being filed. Companies such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter have caved in to government pressure, admitting to absence of preparation and establishing obligations to safeguard users. The need for protection against harmful information is critical, and the function of intermediaries must evolve in parallel, thereby revising its fiscal incentive structure and public utility role.
There seems to be little doubt that government laws may be exploited and abused, possibly leading India down a hazardous and utterly unwelcomed road of censorship. Equally there is no denying that social media giants must accept responsibility for the use of their services as cesspools for hate. As a result, it is critical to provide safe spaces where people of various perspectives may engage in the hopes of encouraging discussion and peace. Now more than ever, it has become imperative for social networking sites to assume liability and recognize their role in conflicts and major violations of human rights. The government has to take a strong position since similar incidents are happening more often. There is a delicate balance between free speech and abuse of that freedom. There has to be a stronger legislative framework in place to prevent scaremongering and hate communications from meddling with democratic processes and inciting violence of any sort. Conclusively, it is essential that we acknowledge the huge role of social media in promoting communal unrest in society, which may lead to sectarian clashes.
The Way Forward
The pandemic provides unique example for Indian jurisprudence and can help to bridge the ethical-legal divide. Sustained participative interactions should take place inside the sector, as well as with state and non-state entities. India’s response should be propelled by taking these factors into account:
(i) Establish an independent regulator to monitor compliance with the new false news and hate speech regulations.
(ii) Government interventions should be essential, and minimum, with effective and consistent performance of their tasks.
(iii) In collaboration with all actors, an integrated and ethical Code of Conduct must be established to reconcile the platform's regulatory framework with interest of the people.
(iv) Promote accessibility and foster digital education.
Title Image: Daily India
This article has been written by Isha Lodha and Prapti Kothari. Isha & Prapti are both students of law in their second year at GNLU Gandhinagar & ILNU Ahmedabad respectively.