Freedom of speech in the age of social media is a complex issue, because perceptions of its abuse are highly subjective and can only be dealt with on a case-by-case, contextual basis. By laying down policies that link access to government services with expressions of opinion, states are undermining the spirit of this fundamental right.
Uttarakhand DGP Ashok Kumar has reportedly said police will maintain a database of social media activity and deny passports to those found guilty of ‘anti-national’ posts. The Ministry of Home Affairs, equally concerned about ‘anti-national’ social media mongering, has proposed a volunteer corps of citizens to detect questionable posts, including those that point to child abuse or gender crimes.
Meanwhile, Bihar is seeking to refine its definition of the right to dissent. Joining a demonstration (even in good faith) could have serious consequences, in case it turns violent. Individuals who are unfortunate enough to be named in the police chargesheet could be denied government jobs, bank loans, passports, petrol pump licences and so on.
In effect, the state has arrogated to itself the right to judge what constitutes ‘anti-national’ sentiment, or justifiable use of the right to dissent and to define ‘responsible’ behaviour by citizens, both online and offline.
The private sector is no less arbitrary. Twitter accounts can be suspended at will, for ‘abusive’ behaviour ‘designed to consciously harass, intimidate, or silence another person’s voice’. The problem with terms as broad as these is that they do not take into account widely varying human sensibilities.
One man’s hero could be another’s villain and Big Tech knows it, but occasionally chooses a side. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s discomfort with the banning of US president Donald Trump from the micro-blogging site was patent, as he struggled to justify the ‘dangerous precedent’ that ran counter to a ‘free and open global internet’.
Closer home, Twitter twice suspended a singer’s account for ‘insulting’ tweets, but a handle which spat epithets at slain journalist-activist Gauri Lankesh is still online, as is one that compares a controversial actor to ‘slime-covered worms that live in gutter sewage’. So, just about anyone could be accused of unacceptable behaviour, or not.
Big Tech’s absolute discretion in policing online content can boomerang. Twitter was obviously deeply reluctant to comply with the Indian government's request that it suspend several hundred accounts promoting ‘disharmony’, but eventually complied.
As for tweeting errors, who is to judge whether they are genuine or deliberate? An MP and a number of journalists misidentified a portrait of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose unveiled by the President of India as that of a Bengali actor. It would take a mind-reader to determine whether it was an attempt to denigrate Rashtrapati Bhawan or a genuine mistake.
Likewise, a TV anchor and a few others tweeted that Delhi Police had shot dead a protester, at the height of the violent demonstration in the capital on Republic Day. The tweets could potentially have sparked further violence, but it is doubtful whether they were deliberate. Regrettably hasty, certainly, but hardly smacking of ulterior motives, as the FIRs filed against the perpetrators maintain.
Politicians on both sides of the fence are notoriously illiberal when it comes to social media. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Bannerjee took offence to a political cartoon and jailed a college professor for having circulated it. A few years later, her party’s student wing filed a police complaint against a student for circulating cartoons featuring the CM.
Maharashtra CM Uddhav Thackeray is equally sensitive. A Navi Mumbai resident was booked for allegedly offensive remarks against the CM and his son on social media, while one young man was arrested thrice, for similarly disrespectful posts. Shiv Sainiks tonsured a VHP worker and roughed up a retired Navy officer for the same transgression.
To be fair, one of the CM’s Congress predecessors had presided over the arrest of cartoonist Aseem Trivedi on charges of sedition. Around the same time, a Puducherry businessman was arrested for posts against the then Finance minister P Chidambaram’s son. In Bangalore, several persons were arrested for sharing morphed pictures of the then Karnataka CM HD Kumaraswamy. Just as comedian Munawar Faroqui was picked up by the Madhya Pradesh police for heckling the Union Home minister.
Economist John Stuart Mill’s ‘lakshman rekha' vis-a-vis free speech was based on the ‘harm principle’. Free speech can be limited only ‘to prevent harm to others’. Inciting an angry mob is certainly harmful to others, but whether expressing a political opinion, critiquing a policy decision, or mocking a public figure, fit that criteria is doubtful.
In the US, academics are concerned over the Right’s ‘weaponising of free speech’. The trouble is that anyone, be it state or non-state actors or political parties and their partisans, can be accused of the same thing. Governments and corporations have to tread warily on matters related to free speech, broad-basing their decisions as much as possible, because in the long run, censorship can create more abuses than it addresses.
The writer is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.