Tuesday , 13 November 2018
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The Scourge Of Social Media

BINAYAK DATTA

DID you ever wonder  why in a courtroom  it is only the witness who is required to swear in the name of God, that he “shall speak the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”,  whereas the bar and the bench would have no such requirements.The point is: if every witness would have really spoken the truth then the bar and the bench would not have been needed at all! But given all the oath-taking, the bar and the bench are around, for the case to be adjudged, and it is generally taken that the witness and the accused will speak the untruth!

Social media the menace

I thought nothing could mundanely apply more to social media. There have been appalling and unbridled spread of half-truths, wholly untruths and fake news on social media. There also have been a spate of extremely divisive hate messages, child-lifter and the cow-snatching bogies-linked lynchings, widespread cyber bullying, vicious trolling and swearing of people holding different beliefs. There have also been   rise in death threats to young school girls. All this   apparently has direct connections to the social media. The numbers being reported are scary. Nobody is being spared – from Union ministers to the Supreme Court to school girls. The matter therefore needs serious handling and yes with an emergency footing!

I would like to examine the matter from four angles: a) how is social media being used in India; b) what are the service providers doing in terms of safety and security of users; c) what should the government be doing in the matter; and finally d) what should users be responsible for.

I think social media is an extremely powerful free tool for dissemination of speedy information and in remote corners where the mainstream media perhaps would not be able to reach fast – for instance in a national calamity or in a grave emergency of sorts. Social media also puts together a “family” – unimagined in our bygone days.  And with my 700 “friends” (mostly my students under the age of 22), I now ‘relearn’ new things, newer technologies available, all through the social media and it is just fantastic! And if there was ever a Bertie Wooster around, I am sure he would have asked Jeeves to withdraw his comment: “My earnest hope is that the entire remainder of my existence will be one round of unruffled monotony” (in Wodehouse’s ‘Thank You,  Jeeves’). Yes, It is never a dull ‘monotony’ with a vibrant social media around.

But it is painful to see how in actuality it is being misused in our country. You wake up in the morning and Lo!! There, you get drenched immediately in a thousand WhatsApp messages with meaningless ‘good morning’ pictures, sometimes with the same fruits and flowers.  WhatsApp actually once crashed and couldn’t handle the stress of 20 billion good morning and New Year messages in India. Such a shame!

Repeated appeals against this self-defeating nuisance in all my groups have yielded little results! Then comes the menace of ‘forwards’ and the ease at which you can forward a message to hundreds of unsuspecting people really makes sure you get the same old message five times in one day.  And your major preoccupation would be to clean your WhatsApp folders to free up your space! I think the latent craving in a human, to be the “first-to-bring-you-what’s-new” really kills! Then comes unabated forwarding of morphed pictures, and the utter stupidity of the content! Even a former president of the nation was not spared.

Messages bring death

Next, is the fake news spreading hate and rancour of divisiveness or brainwash for strong irrational support for somebody. But the real dangers are those that spread doctored speeches making them look ominous, false stories with purported pictures of ‘cow-snatchers’ and ‘child-lifters’ or terror attacks and riots, as they do brisk rounds leaving trails of death behind them. Then there is sexual blackmail – in West Bengal, three schoolchildren in the last three months ended their lives in terror of blackmail on Facebook.

So, what are service providers doing? In an end-to-end encrypted application it would not be easy to intrude into content both by process as also by sheer volumes. Facebook provides a feature to ‘report’ if you have reasons to believe that person-specific content was posted without permission. It would then use its photo-matching technology to stop further transmission. Facebook runs a helpline in suicide and crisis support.

I read reports suggesting WhatsApp starting a ‘forward’ notification on forwarded messages. But the Madras High Court, recently ruled, “Forwarding a message is equal to accepting the message and endorsing the message”. I recommend WhatsApp prints the name and number of the originator and disallows cut-paste (like some websites have in the Internet) for traceability to the real culprit. But I would still like to have a free social media without much interference excepting in malicious contents. Tell the government to help – and the easiest thing for it to do is to bring in a new law. It is the last thing that will help, I can assure you.

The IT Act (even without Section 66A) and the Indian Penal Code together already provide for punishment for spreading hatred or divisiveness or somebody “altering” computer content etc; the government can even block public access to any information. The real issue is that of implementation. When a senior minister was being trolled by persons who in turn are ‘followed’ by topmost political executives  of the country you could hear only one feeble non-committal voice “protesting” – but no punishments.

The best control is self-control, in my view. The group administrator must be vigilant in forbidding and reporting abuse even record complaints if necessary at the police station.

We must first deserve to have a free vibrant social media – and for that it is users who have to stand up against fake news, malicious contents, useless greetings, stupid forwards and blackmail and only then in my view, can we hope to do away with Bertie Wooster’s “monotonous” life!

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