It was always predictable. That the Indian government’s war against social media “hate mongers” would turn farcical and begin targeting all and sundry: from random parodies of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Twitter account to prominent journalists like Kanchan Gupta and Shiv Aroor. And then Communication Minister Milind Deora discovered that his own Twitter account had been blocked.
The government blames social media for hosting objectionable content and rumour-mongering that allegedly contributed to the exodus of people of northeastern origin from cities like Bangalore and Hyderabad. Despite its best attempts, the government argues, it was unable to control the mass hysteria and was left with little alternative but to block 300 websites as well as ask Twitter and Facebook to delete “objectionable” content.
It is hardly the first time that social media has been blamed for facilitating riots. The role of BlackBerry’s instant messenger during the London riots of 2011 was constantly highlighted and there was even talk of banning the popular service before saner heads prevailed. Clearly, while rumours and doctored images have always been part of riots, the instantaneous nature of social media and the relative anonymity it affords offer additional challenges.
Nevertheless, the government’s constant attempts at censorship in the name of social harmony and national security should give all right-thinking Indians pause. Four simple reasons.
First, it is astounding how quickly the attention has shifted away from the governance failures that were largely responsible for the Assam riots and the mass departure of people of northeastern origin from India’s major metropolitan centres. The local government’s laggardly response to the initial bursts of violence allowed the riots to rage for days while the government dithered over calling the army. Social media had little, if any, role to play. And while panic is admittedly difficult to control, it is the poor record of the Indian state in responding to politically motivated violence that contributed to the panic-stricken reaction of people of northeastern origin. What should worry the Indian state are not the ravings of some anonymous Twitter account but the utter lack of faith in its ability to secure the safety of some of its most vulnerable citizens.
Second, while all governments wish to control the flow of information, the track record of the Indian state in the matter of free speech has been spectacularly poor. At the slightest allegation of “hurting religious sentiments”, books are banned, movies censored, and violence is threatened. Lacking an explicit First Amendment protection, Indian citizens are virtually powerless when the government wishes to quell free speech. The draconian Information Technology Act, 2008, orders internet providers to immediately remove content that may be “grossly harmful”, “blasphemous”, “obscene”, or even disparaging with little oversight and virtually no due process of law. As the Centre for Internet and Society’s Pranesh Prakash has demonstrated, internet providers are ready to remove “objectionable” content even in the case of frivolous complaints originating from ordinary citizens. What is particularly disconcerting is that the disregard for free speech extends even to some of India’s most prominent media personalities who can often be heard exhorting the government to regulate the internet or scrub off “hate mongers”. Given this history and the government’s demonstrated contempt for free speech, its attempts at censorship should be strongly scrutinised and vigorously resisted except in the most extenuating of circumstances.
Third, the Luddites in the Indian government may not yet comprehend it, but the internet is virtually impossible to police. The government may be able to threaten giant companies like Facebook and Twitter into cooperating, but that simply means the “objectionable” content would move to darker corners of the Net. Indeed, it is surprising that the government has not considered using technology to counter malicious rumours or to reach a mass audience with a message of reassurance. Technology can be a powerful tool for doing good and it is high time the government properly harnessed its potential. As a first step, the government has to recognise that the days when it had a monopoly on information are long gone and it has to compete for people’s attention.
Finally, even the most ardent supporter of free speech should have no qualms about admitting that it can offer a platform to the bigoted or can indirectly lead to social unrest. That may be especially true for a country like India where passions run high and an ambivalent attitude towards political violence prevails. That, however, is simply the price of liberty. Yes, a society that lacks free speech may be more stable, but it would lack the spirit of rambunctious discussion, criticism and argument — the hallmarks of a liberal democracy.
India can adopt a China-lite model, which emphasises social stability over freedom. Or India can go down the path of other liberal democracies and understand that freedom – of speech, thought and behaviour – is an ideal worth cherishing and protecting. As a constitutional republic with genuine claims of being a liberal democracy, it is clear which path India should embrace.
The writer is a fellow at the Takshashila Institution. These views are personal