Antisocial network

With its ease of providing network and anonymity, the internet is unfortunately becoming a space for propagating abuse and hatred


Pankaj Srivastava | September 8, 2015

In the midst of the 2014 election campaign, a ‘new’ information was being widely circulated on social media: the ancestors of the first Indian prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, were Muslims. According to this ‘revelation’, Nehru was the great-grandson of one Ghiyasuddin Ghazi who apparently took a Hindu name during the 1857 uprising to save his life. It was a clear attempt to arouse doubts about the religious beliefs of the Nehru-Gandhi family for political interests. The attempt could have well achieved its purpose as many people would have believed that piece of information, since it was on Wikipedia. But only a few are aware that anyone can write or edit the content available on this free encyclopedia.

In the current age of instant access to the internet and an ocean of content flowing constantly over it, few people have the time or inclination to crosscheck facts. At Wikipedia, there is no editorial scrutiny, and anybody can use this platform for baseless propaganda as it was done in the case of Nehru’s religion. An inquiry, though, was carried out. The National Informatics Centre (NIC), the software solution provider to the government, has with it all the information regarding this malicious act. In response to an RTI query, however, it refused to part with the information on grounds that it may have “security implications”.

Interestingly, though corrections were made on the Wikipedia page, many websites are still sharing that wrong information. Putting a complete stop to it seems unlikely. Another weapon of promoting false stories is the Photoshop software. One can easily find ‘photographs’ in which Gandhiji can be seen dancing with girls and Nehru drinking whisky with women.

It is being observed that an organised antisocial behaviour has become a regular trend on social media platforms. People gang up to target someone. Online connectivity is growing rapidly and is used to spread hate among castes and communities. It is always politically motivated. Several politicians have a digital army, busy in bullying their opponents round the clock.

This trend of cyber-bullying is, however, not limited to the political sphere; several freethinkers or ideologues with different viewpoints are also not spared. Former managing editor of India Today (Hindi), Dilip C Mandal, was a recent target. Mandal, who is known for his social concerns, has always raised questions regarding presence of dalits and OBCs in every important office of the country including the PMO.

His latest theory was that the RSS is not a Hindu but an upper caste organisation, with no concern for equality and justice. This had created a lot of hue and cry. Facebook received a large number of complaints against Mandal denoting his post as ‘vulgar’. In mid-August, Mandal found that his Facebook account was deactivated and a fake account with his name was in circulation. A post on this fake account had objectionable remarks on Mandal’s late wife R Anuradha, who was also a senior journalist. Last year, Anuradha lost her life after a long battle with cancer. In that post, ‘lower caste’ Mandal is celebrating the early demise of his ‘brahmin wife’ Anuradha, as it became difficult to live with a woman of a different caste. One can only imagine the pain of real Mandal on this comment of fake Mandal. This fake post was shared widely with a lot of abuse to Mandal.

No doubt, social network is a great opportunity to reconnect with old friends, exchange ideas, share pictures and perform many other activities. People can align with latest global developments and participate in campaigns of their choices. For the first time in history, a common man can publish his ideas or comments globally, without investing a single rupee. But when this ‘people’s power’ is used for hate campaigns, a question of regulation becomes important.

Nowadays, cyber-bullying has become a global phenomenon. In October last year, former White House intern Monica Lewinsky announced that her life mission was to end cyber-bullying. We all know that former US president Bill Clinton had admitted having an “inappropriate relationship” with Lewinsky when she was interning in the White House during 1995-96. It was a big scandal of that time, but very few people know what Lewinsky had to face after that. In that pre-Google era the internet was nascent but still capable of humiliating someone.

In a lecture she said, “I know I am not alone when it comes to public humiliation. No one, it seems, can escape the unforgiving gaze of the internet, where gossip, half-truths, and lies take root and fester. We have created, to borrow a term from historian Nicolaus Mills, a ‘culture of humiliation’ that not only encourages and revels in Schadenfreude but also rewards those who humiliate others, from the ranks of the paparazzi to the gossip bloggers, the late-night comedians, and the web ‘entrepreneurs’ who profit from clandestine videos… Yes, we’re all connected now. We can tweet a revolution in the streets or chronicle achievements large and small. But we’re also caught in a feedback loop of defame and shame, one in which we have become both perps and victims. We may not have become a crueler society – although it sure feels as if we have – but the internet has seismically shifted the tone of our interactions. The ease, the speed, and the distance that our electronic devices afford us can also make us colder, more glib, and less concerned about the consequences of our pranks and prejudice. Having lived humiliation in the most intimate possible way, I marvel at how willingly we have all signed on to this new way of being.”

The story of Monika Lewinsky is alarming. Some studies in the West show that 54 percent Facebook users, have been cyber-bullied. As many as 38 percent of the victims reported suicidal thinking or a suicide attempt. People invest their whole life to build a good reputation but lose it in a minute by some tap on keyboards or touchscreens.

So, what is the cure? In a free and democratic society, one cannot think of curtailing the ‘right to expression’. But it doesn’t mean that this right can overshadow the very idea of ‘right to privacy’ or ‘right to live with dignity’. It is the responsibility of the legal system to protect these rights.

Unfortunately, the Information Technology Act has failed in this regard. Police had misused Section 66A of IT Act to arrest many people for posting critical remarks about social and political personalities. Its striking off by the apex court was a crucial evidence of the Act’s failure. 

People have every right to share their ideas of any colour without any hesitation, but they should also respect other people’s views while expressing themselves on social media. Social sites like Facebook and Twitter are managed by big companies and they are very much abided by the law of the land. The constitution gives us the right of free speech, but if anyone uses this right to abuse, spread lies or initiate hate campaign, then several sections of the Indian penal code can be used to put these cyber-bullies in jail. Fictions cannot become facts just by appearing on social media and ‘mobocracy’ cannot replace the idea of democracy and human dignity.

(The article appears in the September 16-30, 2015 issue)



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