In India, letting online hate speech go unpunished, unchallenged has real and violent repercussions

INTRODUCTION: Social media’s impact on mainstream media, and the way people communicate with one another and disseminate information, has become a subject of serious study for journalists, academics and policymakers alike. While it has been a significant equaliser as a vehicle by which the fundamental right to freedom of expression is guaranteed everyone irrespective of class, creed or geography, these very same platforms are also becoming spaces where — in the garb of free speech — misinformation and hate are able to flourish. In India, these spaces provide both tacit and overt sanction for rising incidents of majoritarian violence as identity-based, populist politics dominate the country’s landscape. 

In a recently published research paper, Maya Mirchandani analyses the intersections between free speech and hate speech and the impact of majoritarian hate speech in the Indian context. Mirchandani asks whether government agencies and individuals working to counter terrorism and violent extremism in India can bring majoritarian violence of this nature under their umbrella.

The following excerpt from Mirchandani's paper, titled 'Digital hatred, real violence: Majoritarian radicalisation and social media in India', asks 'Where does India go from here?'


In June 2018, the debate on trolling and hate speech in India took a curious turn over a passport controversy in the case of a Hindu woman (who was later described by right-wing commentator Madhu Kishwar  as a “soldier of Islam” who was expected to “conquer the world”) married to a Muslim man. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj would subsequently order the suspension of the passport issuing officer, without the benefit of a hearing. Swaraj was trolled, including by people who until then would brook no criticism towards her. Suddenly, her decision was ascribed to having an “Islamic kidney” (she had a kidney transplant in 2017) . Swaraj may have made a hasty judgement, but it is certain that it had nothing to do with the religion of her kidney donor — a fact lost on those who abused her. Moreover, an inquiry by the Ministry of External Affairs subsequently proved that the passport application in question was in fact valid. Many have argued that in the viciousness of the attacks, she is no different than any other victim of hate speech on social media, especially women in the public eye. Yet, the difference is glaring in that it indicates that even those in power, and seemingly of the same faith-based ideology, must not show any signs of tolerance or moderation in the face of an ever militant Right Wing, even if the Constitution they swear by demands that they do.

The internet is clearly changing the way the public is viewing, and claiming, political power.

In 1964, Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase, “the medium is the message”. His intention was to encourage an understanding of the human mind’s receptivity to information on mass media, on how messages are perceived. McLuhan proposed that a medium — in the context of this paper, social media — impact society not only through the content that it delivers, but also by its own specific characteristics, creating a dominant information-based social environment. In our times, a medium which emerged as a tool of communication and is celebrated for its role in mass mobilisation during popular movements (the Arab Spring, for example), is in danger of becoming a propaganda tool in the hands not only of globally recognised terror groups like IS and Al-Qaeda who trawl timelines of unsuspecting users looking for potential recruits, but also in those of a large group of politically mobilised citizens who knowingly sanction violence and abuse.

There is equally no question that social media companies must shoulder responsibility when it comes to the use of their platforms as echo chambers of hate. Image for representation only. REUTERS

Social media companies must shoulder responsibility when it comes to the use of their platforms as echo chambers of hate. Image for representation only. REUTERS

Different legal systems draw distinctions between speech that is protected by freedom of expression, and hate speech. Legal experts are divided on whether free speech should be absolute even if hateful, making individual expression paramount; whether it should be punishable through sanctions or prosecution, especially when directed at people who belong to subordinate or minority groups; or whether there can be some middle ground between the two positions. In the United States, scholars are further divided on whether absolute free speech in schools and workplaces contributes to tensions or whether suppressing it risks charges of censorship, with the same results. While social media companies may be governed by varied laws in different countries, India’s Constitution is sacrosanct when it comes to prohibiting targeted discrimination or vilification of individuals based on religion, gender or caste. Those who drafted it did so for a nation premised on the idea of a polity governed by allegiance to Constitutional principles of tolerance and respect for India’s diversity, the protection of all its minorities, and the fundamental right to life and liberty.

Several cases that have gone to court since 2012 involve individuals whose posts on social media had been censored or taken down for being offensive to politicians, parliament, inciting violence, and hurting religious sentiments. Some users have been arrested or charged under Section 66A of the Information Technology Act that aimed to punish “offensive, false or threatening information” through computers and communication devices. Some of those arrests, especially in the context of political vendettas, were challenged on the principle that they violated the right to free speech. In fact, in Shreya Singhal v Union of India (AIR 2015 SC 1523), the Supreme Court declared that the section “arbitrarily, excessively and disproportionately invades the right of free speech and upsets the balance between such right and the reasonable restrictions that may be imposed on such right”. Due to its ambiguous nature, the court ended up declaring 66A  “unconstitutional”. Yet, both this order, as well as the recommendations of the TK Viswanathan Committee underscore the challenges in evolving new P/CVE strategies that tackle the spectrum from hate speech to extremist violence.

There is no question that top-down, government regulations could be subjected to manipulation and misuse by ruling governments reacting to opposition voices, irrespective of who is in power, and potentially lead India down a dangerous and completely undesirable path of censorship.

There is equally no question that social media companies must shoulder responsibility when it comes to the use of their platforms as echo chambers of hate. Counter-strategies are premised on the use of soft power to create new narratives. Artists and creative voices, educators and community elders, celebrities who represent values of patriotism and not hyper-nationalism, need to find safe spaces that allow extreme views to interact with each other in the hope of fostering dialogue and peace. The pathways to those narratives are the same — infusing social media spaces with positive messaging that highlights India’s glorious composite culture and exposes bigotry and hatred. Companies have already spent millions of dollars, and vast amounts of intellectual capital, on investing in “counter narratives” and ramping up efforts to identify, review and take down hate speech as fast as it appears. But it is not enough.

Countering one form of violence and terror cannot take place at the cost of allowing another. Undoubtedly, fighting terrorism in all its forms is a national security priority for any government. The widely used definition of “terrorism” as “the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims” requires an understanding that majoritarian violence needs to be included in the larger agenda of countering extremism. These need not be contradictory priorities. India needs to bell the proverbial cat, and accept the potential dangers of growing majoritarian violence in order to address it and preserve the country’s fundamental freedoms. 

Maya Mirchandani conducts research on countering violent extremism (CVE) at the Observer Research Foundation and teaches Media Studies at Ashoka University

Republished with permission from the author. Read the complete paper here.

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Updated Date: Sep 02, 2018 09:35:05 IST

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