Pitfalls of social media
Despite its many benefits, social media today has taken on an ugly face with harsh rumours inciting violence and death in the country.
'Before you speak let your words pass through three gates: Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?' These pearls of wisdom by Buddha seem to fall on deaf ears when it comes to a large part of social media which has engulfed millions of people, bestowing practically unfettered freedom of expression. Anything and everything is posted, ranging from frivolous jokes to serious issues of national concern, no matter whether one understands the implications and consequence thereof. Canards, online trials, and trolls find social media sites comfortable platforms at the expense of decency and responsibility. Frankly, the ills of social media outnumber its benefits.
In the CBSE question paper scandal this year, WhatsApp messages were reported to be the chief culprit causing untold sufferings to both the board and the students. Fake news acquired wings and speed on social media. This month, in a few states across the country, innocent people were lynched by mobs, mistaken to be child lifters. Earlier, too, some innocent people fell victims for alleged cow slaughter. A few days ago, four people were killed in a backlash resulting from a WhatsApp video in Tripura. The list gets exhaustive if we enumerate the deadly fallouts of the abuse of social media.
Loaded expressions inciting caste and communal hatred on various sites often pose a potential threat to social harmony, especially when inciting incidents disrupt law and order. Far from grooming people to have a progressive outlook, social media ironically seems to expedite polarisation as people connect themselves to groups and organisations on divisive lines of religion, caste and creed quicker than ever before.
19 per cent of India's population is youth, an enviable manpower of productive age. This is also more than what China has. But, a great deal of productive time is apparently wasted on unproductive gossip, entertainment, and controversial posts. Social media has stealthily crept into offices and workplaces too. Administrative actions and trials in courts are also discussed online with scant respect for institutions. The weird scenario is that even government servants have joined the bandwagon, promoting themselves, enlisting friends and followers. How friendly official functionaries can get to citizens is a matter of conduct rules; even if granted, a majority of the public remains deprived of such 'privilege' thanks to the digital divide.
Social media also became a convenient platform to merchandise goods and services. Not far behind are political parties unleashing aggressive campaigns to influence voters; which often turns into a game of mudslinging rather than remaining an ideological battle. The epitome of heat is felt during elections when 24/7 online campaigns and opinions confuse naive voters.
India is not alone in bearing the brunt of social media. More than a dozen countries, including Turkey and Iran, have imposed various restrictions though in fits and starts. China, Cuba, Mauritius, Egypt, Syria, Bangladesh and Vietnam have come down heavily on ISPs. The European Data Protection Regulation bans kids under 13 from using social media. The US has a two-fold mechanism of controlling internet freedom viz. federal and state laws. Notwithstanding the first amendment which guarantees freedom of speech and expression, a plethora of federal laws are enforced to prevent indecency, fraud, child abuse, sex trafficking etc. Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), Communications Decency Act (CDA), Stop Advertising Victims of Exploitation Act of 2015 (SAVE) are some initiatives which indirectly control social media. Quite a few states in the US have also enacted laws to locally control obscene or indecent online material and content.
Out in India, courts have upheld many times the fundamental right of free speech and expression, but they have also expressed concern against the misuse of such right. In the Secretary, Ministry of I&B versus Cricket Association of Bengal dispute way back in 1995, the Supreme Court held that citizens should have the benefit of a plurality of views and a range of opinions on all public issues because a successful democracy needs an 'aware' citizenry. However, it was maintained in the same breath that such freedoms are not unconditional. In March 2015, clubbing the petitions of Shreya Singhal, PUCL, Mouthshut.com and the Internet and Mobile Association of India, the Supreme Court quashed Section 66A of the Information Technology (IT) Act, 2000, which allows the state to arrest people posting "offensive content", calling it unconstitutional and "violative of Article 19(1) (a) and not saved under Article 19(2)". However, the Supreme Court on October 5, 2017, also expressed concern over abusive and derogatory comments on social media and agreed with the contention of senior advocates Fali Nariman and Harish Salve that people doing so should face consequences.
Notwithstanding Section 69A of the IT Act and Rules (2009) which enables the Central government to prohibit content or block a website, the existing cyber laws hardly possess the required teeth. IT (Intermediaries Guidelines) Rules, of course, bind providers of telecom network, internet, webhosting services etc, towards the exercise of due diligence on content. But Section 79 of the IT Act 2000 also grants immunity to the above ISPs against any objectionable content hosted after due diligence.
The misuse of social media is a concern in all most all countries in the world. Social media sites cannot be permitted to become forums for unfettered and irresponsible expressions or fake news threatening the peace and tranquillity of society, let alone individual privacy.
In spite of a convincing argument that social media works as a 'checks and balances' against the organised media, it's not worth playing devil's advocate when online cacophony reduces freedom of expression to a glorified travesty. At the same, it's no denying either that social media in the hands of responsible educated citizens can contribute to greater awareness and dissemination of knowledge. However, it cannot be let loose to become Frankenstein's monster endangering values of democratic society which our Constitution enunciates. It is high time the anarchy of social media is addressed reasonably and firmly through a stringent law.
(The author is a senior Bureaucrat of Chhattisgarh. The views are strictly personal)