Monday, August 27, 2012

Censoring Vs Sensitizing: How to deal with communal messages, hate speech and misinformation on social media

The rumours that led to panic among people of North East over the violence in Assam and sharing of photographs—both real and morphed, regarding alleged atrocities on Muslims in Myanmar, have brought the issue of monitoring online content at the centre stage.

But first see the three incidents:

1. Photograph of Indian women who were part of the contingent at London Olympics was circulated. Such was the angle of the photograph that it was not clear whether Sania Mirza was carrying flag or not.

This was used to spread false rumours and accuse her of not being ‘Indian’, particularly, because of her marriage to Pakistan’s Shoaib Malik. There were thousands of people commenting at a page specially made for Olympics on Facebook.

While Sania was being targeted rather unfairly, few bothered to see that other women in the same photo had held the tricolor upside down--a much serious issue. When it was pointed out, the number of abusive comments suddenly came down.

2. Photograph of a youth standing with his foot on the ‘shiv linga’ at a temple made rounds on internet. The name of the person whose profile carried this photograph sounded Christian and hence enormous amount of hate was directed at the community.

When the person was finally traced, it was found that he was not a Christian, but Hindu. He was upset with God because of failure in exams repeatedly. Due to malicious act, there were rallies in different cities and lot of hate speech on internet. Finally, he was arrested.

3. Of late, a photograph is being circulated on internet. It shows people wearing skullcaps [clearly Muslim] and whose ire is directed at Indian flag. It is a photo of Pakistan. But this is used to direct anger against Indian Muslims also.

In fact, in one city alone, VHP-Bajrang Dal burnt Pakistani flag twice in less than a month over different issues. Clearly, there are hate-mongers on both sides. Why use the acts of fringe elements to rouse feelings and instigate people.

Of morphed images, rumours and gullible netizens

So are the people so gullible [and fool] that they believe whatever they see on internet? To an extent, it is a fact that when you carry biases and you are presented with similar things, either inciting texts that are based on wrong facts or morphed photos, they tend [or like] to believe it.

Also, there is a large loony fringe on internet. They are just like normal people who appear sophisticated but when they are alone, make dirty graffiti on toilet walls in trains and other places. Hence, such people under false or assumed identities spread their message and get vicarious pleasure.

The above three examples are just a tip of the iceberg. There are groups on Facebook that are ideologically driven and intend to distort things, spread wrong information and create divide among religious communities through their diatribe. But are we so immature that anything can cloud or vision!

Tell youths about cyber laws, online safety

With millions getting news and information through social media, particularly, websites and internet sources like Facebook and Twitter, it is more important to think of sensitizing people. There has been no serious effort at on part of government to tell citizens or students about cyber etiquettes and online safety.

Every day we have large advertisements are published by government. Railway publishes ads about how to travel safely by not taking eating from strangers who can drug your food or Delhi police giving you information about help lines in the form of newspaper advertisements.

Educate, advertise, update school & college syllabi

We see ads on birth and death anniversaries of leaders, politicians and other prominent personalities of yore, to recall their contribution. On particular days like Anti-Child Labour Day or Polio Eradication Day, we have such ads on TV also.

But when crores are using internet and young minds can get poisoned or communalised, why there is no focus on this ever-burgeoning population. Why have we seen no initiative on part of government to tell people that they shouldn’t believe everything and that photographs can be morphed, just like in case of Myanmar violence.

Shouldn’t governments have started teaching cyber etiquettes as a subject by incorporating it in school syllabus. So many youths are getting booked, arrested and jailed, all over India, for posting inflammatory posts or even writing communal comments. This fact is also not known generally.

Creating awareness about laws can reduce hate-mongering

 Not just for objectionable SMS or obscene MMS, people who are writing or sharing controversial images or texts, are booked under IT (Information Technology) Act apart from IPC sections. People spreading rumours or falsehoods are being booked regularly across India.

They don’t get bail easily and spend time in jails. Just that one has to file a report against those spreading mis-information or using threatening or abusive language. If people come to know that there are provisions under which they can be booked, there will be a decline in such incidents.

I feel that one hazards are known, people will behave more maturely and responsibly. Those who commit offences, just like they do off line, will face law here as well. Shouldn’t the recent incidents, particularly, the panic among North East students in South Indian cities of Bangalore and Hyderabad, serve as wake up call.

Ironically, many of the URLs that were blocked were not connected to these issues. Pages that are banned resurface again, on different URLs. What is needed is to inform people about how things can be distorted on virtual world and that they should act with restraint.

There is no better option than educating citizens in this regard. Blocking websites or banning twitter handles is not a solution.