Social networking site such as Facebook and Twitter is public forum where users can let off and upload videos. They profusely articulate their views on politics, class, race, gender, religion and sexuality, community etc. They can also create pages, forums and let groups to join for or against matters of public interest. Hate speech is a very distinguished feature amongst many of these forums.
By the very structure of the platforms, any users can generate a group that opens up hate against certain religions, linguistic minorities, people who are not much to look at face, sexual minorities, differentially disabled people, and racial/ethnic groups. Certainly, platforms, in particular Facebook has become not a social networking site as its inventors thought it to be. Instead, it has often become a gossip book.
Vividly social media sites especially, Facebook users and particularly some staid pattern of platform uses have become politically incorrect. Photo sharing, comments, updates, and Likes, in fact, often bring about downbeat social backlash. Comments, photo shares, etc., are often casteist, prejudiced, sexists, racial, classed, gendered and at times are full-blown disgrace to the individuality and privacy of people belonging to marginalised social groups and minority communities.
Facebook acts such as comments to photos of friends are politically incorrect with far reaching social ramifications. In particular, funny pictures uploaded in the comment section of photos of friends are often discrediting other people. Vulnerable communities often feel as if they are susceptible to barbarity.
‘Africans’, racial minorities, third genders, film stars, celebrities, people not much to look at faces from film world and so on, etc, are often target of contempt and disparagement. Users often share instantly belittling pictures, videos and commentaries on public user profiles of friends. The irony is that knowingly or unknowingly we are habituating to culture of hate.
Thereby, we dump on the inborn ills, and natural infirmities of differentially abled people. Therefore, our use of Facebook in most cases is politically incorrect and contested. Certainly, we need euphemisms.
Now Facebook has become our Gossipbook of solo-digital nomads. Few letters on Facebook Wall has become sufficient reason for massive scale violence, intimidation, death threat by miscreant. The fact seems convincing, considering the violence and scolding following a Facebook comment by Shaheen Dhada: 21-year-old woman from Mumbai,and a Like mark by her friend Rinu Shrinivasan.
Jaya Vindhayala, the state general secretary and a senior woman activist of the NGO outfit, People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) imprisoned by a court in Andhra Pradesh on 13 May 2013 for posting comments on the social networking site, Facebook, against influential public figures. The arrest of Dalit scholar,Kanwal Bharti for commenting in Facebook in support of suspended IAS officer Durga Sakthi Nagpal in Uttar Pradesh, the Faacebook hate story sparked off time after time.
Are our tweets on corruption a reason for arrest under Indian penal Code (IPC)? That sent out to 16 followers, sufficient reason for imprisonment. Can political tweets invite us to three-year imprisonment under IPC? At least in the views of ordinary citizen, the answer seems to be yes, and according to Karti Chidambaram, it is a big yes.
The son of Congress leader P. Chidambaram, Karti, filed a complaint against Puducherry based entrepreneur Ravi Srinivasan. Srinivasan has been arrested under IPC. The tweet meant that Karthi has amassed wealth that outweighs that of Vadra, Son-in-law of Congress chief Sonia Gandhi.
Cartooning is a barometer for testing the tolerance threshold of Indian democracy and if done in Internet, more interesting. Aseem Trivedi, a Kanpur-based cartoonist was arrested in Mumbai on 9 September 2012 under 124A (dealing with sedition) of the IPC. The arrest was on charges of sedition for posting obscene content on his website, Cartoons Against Corruption, a cartoon-based campaign mounted to support the anti-corruption movement in India.
The Government of India put a curb on selected Internet sites in 2012. Amazingly, leaked Government list spread out in Internet, which contained the banned list of Internet platforms such as social media sites, and websites enclosed even platforms of media outlets. The decision was following a series of social media campaign with communal character that allegedly targeted people form North-East India.
There were websites that seemed sensitive to Hindu and Muslim extremists. Surprisingly, the list also enclosed URLs of mainstream media websites though not plain enough if it was due to user-generated content like comments, share, and check in social media badges.
To prevent the spread of rumours, gossips, and communal threats, which has led to exodus of northeastern people from certain states, government again banned bulk SMSs and MMSs for 15 days across the country from Aug 17, 2012. Muslim leaders and Islamic organisations appealed to the northeast people, especially students, to remain in South India cities and not to trust in rumours via social media platforms that they are likely to be target of attack in vengeance to the recent Assam ethnic violence.
There were swelling domestic angst and international repercussion on the arrest of Ambikesh Mahapatra, faculty in the Chemistry Department of the Jadavpur University and his neighbour Subrata Sengupta. The reason cited was that he alleged forwarded cartoons of Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee to nearly 65 recipients. In the cartoons, he was mocking her government policies. Hate or love, the email has been a subject of gossip and rumour that brought about unhealthy tendencies.
The arrest of an Indian university lecturer, S Manikandan, for posting a comment in his personal blog from India was the stated reason for his arrest in Dubai, says India Education Review (21 May 2013), a news portal. The lecturer, who taught in Dubai campus of Manipal University, had his contract terminated without reason. However, after returning to India he wrote on the matter on his blog. Unfortunately, for expressing his views, he ended up in prison! Here again, a blog became villain.
K H Muhammed, Henna Bakshi, and many more have become victims of freedom of speech and expression over the Internet. For the past years, India has seen number of people becoming vulnerable for this tragedy superimposed by the uncensored, unqualified and unchecked opportunities offered by platforms.
Uncensored public space
Hate is rampant in uncensored social media public. The leading national media and regional language media outlets; for instance, have greater social media presence specifically in Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. Such platforms have used by the so-called traditional media outlets to reach out to digital citizens in the networked public. They build whopping likes, shares, comments and followers for each of their updates.
Vividly, most random keyword searches end up in the high traffic platforms owned by such traditional media monopolies. For the television channels, Twitter and Facebook platforms are unavoidable for interactive engagements with viewers, while live programmes aired.
Television channels from time to time shows the Twitter updates and Facebook comments of users for their live programmes on time. This shows that the social media platforms offer a new space for expressing views. Replies to the incidents reported by television channels, magazines and newspapers have huge fan basis online.
The comment threads of the social media platforms of Television channels, print media and magazines have, in fact, tremendous interactive participation. In the social media badges of media outlets in Internet, where one can see users generating content by way of interactive participation.
The comment thread of social media platforms embedded with the websites and news portals are critical hate spaces. The social media badges of most media outlets are free space without monitoring or moderation of comments and replies to contents. Comment moderation policies are comparatively poor except few.
Therefore, the comment thread of websites turns out to be potential anathema to an unimaginable extent. Since there is no moderation of comments and replies, people of all ilk are able to network and collaborate on direct action programmes. The social media badges of media outlets provide a good safety valve for digital natives.
The online media outlets are at present platforms with highest Internet traffic. Individual profiles and websites are having low traffic. It is because; discussing political issues and public matters are less important concern of most Internet users as of now.
The awfully exciting development found in the social media badges of television channels, print media outlets and popular English news magazines are that the social media platforms offers a loaded safety valve: a hate space. The safety valve is that control free space where no monitoring and moderation exist and have greater audience pool. These spaces are often the target of hate speakers to spread rumours.
Everyone is vulnerable
In short, social media helped only spread rumours, hate and other repulsive tendencies. Instead of liberating marginalised communities, and expelled social categories, social media is most often a space of vulnerabilities. Even most empowered, educated, and well-informed people find it very difficult to distinguish between hate speech and more speech. The experiences of politicians, writers, activists, etc., proved that social media could become potentially dangerous, instead of bringing about more freedom and political empowerment.
There seems a blurring line between hate space and free space in social media platforms. The line demarcating freedom of speech and limitation to speech are casing faint. Shashi Tharoor, for instance, the then Minister of State for External Affairs, on 15 September 2009 replied in response to a question from Journalist soon after the Government of India introduced an austerity drive that has become a controversy. Tharoor, replied: @KanchanGupta saying: Absolutely, in cattle class out of solidarity with all our holy cows.
In fact, it was a response to a question raised by a journalist. Shashi Tharoor raged another controversy on 01-01-2013 on tweet following the gang rape of young woman on 16 December 2012 in Delhi that he wanted to know the identity of the victim and if her parents consented, the anti-rape law should be renamed after her. The tweet has raged a controversy for which social media itself provided a space.
As per the IPC, the identity of rape victims cannot be unveiled and stamping or circulating the name or any stuff, which may make known the identity of any person against whom rape is committed, is an offence under section 228-A of Indian Penal Code. However, what differentiate such social media free space from hate space is almost difficult to trace out.
Shobha De, the seasoned writer put a tweet on Mumbai Statehood, following the decision of UPA government to bifurcate Andhra Pradesh. Unfortunately, she faced massive online threat and became a target of organized abuse. Poet and activist Meena Kandasamy has faced severe online attack following her post expressing views on beef eating festival at Osmania University. This means known to unknown, social media often become a space that is more prone to exploit our vulnerabilities and sensibilities.
More importantly, young people showed greater vulnerabilities. Youth has greater social identification via platforms. It even affects character formation and personality. It affects the moral development of young people. Social networking sites blur line between gossip and facts. Chat forums, user platforms allow kids, youth etc., to gain information about everything from peer around the world.
Nevertheless, they do not get a balance between facts and rumour. Platforms are unleashing monsters coupled with no perspectives. Facebook in India is fast becoming most popular. This attains significance since majority of gossiping is developing through Facebook platforms. It has become a gossip paradise which infesting people with innuendo, insult and half-truth.
Among this, social media often misinform people, and people get misquoted facts. Rumours are easily scattering like virus. In Kerala, the film star Prithviraj, cricketer Sreesanth, Internet celebrity Santhosh Pandit, TV anchor Ranjini Haridas have become victims of the gossip culture in social media sites.
Young people easily accept what is spreading out in platforms as true while forgetting the expanding rumour culture in social media sites. Young people easily get to believe in what is multiplying and becoming popular about so and so in platforms. They do not check for sources, credibility and authenticity of information diffusing.
Therefore, the presence of online hate groups in an environment recurrent by youth is potentially manipulative combination. Hate groups, even those engaged with virtually can become important socializing agents in the lives of youth. Studies prove that various online communities and social networking sites offer important sources of social identification for youth, and many do not distinguish between people they meet online from those they meet offline. In fact, young people are quite importantly unable to distinguish between free speech and hate speech in Internet. Young people are more vulnerable for speech that often brings them in to trouble under law.
Hate space is rampant in social media. Gossip culture can attain astronomical growth in platforms since they go unchecked and uncensored. Rumour gets unwanted attention from users. Instead of any politically motivated engagements and acts, social media sites are popular for tendencies that are defamatory. The structure of the medium is advantageous to hate speakers. In fact, social media is a site of political incorrectness and violation of ethical use of euphemism.
About the contributor:Biju P R, teaches Political Science at Government Brennen College, Thalassery, Kerala. Researches on social media and political interfaces in the Indian context. Currently writing two books on the same theme. (Clicking Alone: Mechanics of protest and change in digital India) and (Connective Politics: Reflections on digital public in India).