India, like the rest of the world, was doomed to suffer the dramatic impacts of new technology on its social and political life. It was childish to presume that social media platforms would only be used for communication and spreading information. These are still early days and we are grappling with fears of manipulation of democratic processes, disinformation campaigns, organised character assassination, abusive trolling and an abnormally bitter and fractured society.
Meaningful and constructive public engagements have doubtless been drowned by the dominant stream of falsehood, abuses, slander and carefully-crafted propaganda to perpetuate political power. It won’t be wise to expect governments to allow unbridled powers to the tech giants running the social media platforms and legal frameworks would be designed everywhere to regulate their activities. That the Narendra Modi government too is responding to the new challenges with new laws is understandable.
What is problematic is the tenor of engagement. Matured democracies should undertake this exercise with a cool mindset, with a sense of reflection and accommodation, rather than demonstrating confrontation-ism. Twitter, WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram or any other platform will have to comply with the local laws but governments will have to move cautiously, keeping in mind the interests of the users and the broader framework of constitutional scheme.
It can’t be anybody’s case that Twitter shouldn’t appoint a grievance officer, a nodal officer and a chief compliance officer as required by law. Questions, however, will be raised if the government tries to control these instruments to suit its political objective or the clauses of the law are not in tune with the concepts of freedom of expression and right to privacy. Internet intermediaries aren’t publishers and the distinction should be understood in its entirety.
Even governments will learn in the process and there will be need to fine-tune legal provisions, making it incumbent on both sides to adopt a flexible approach. Data is a critical factor in today’s world and governments should be wary of becoming a partisan player in the fierce competitive game domestic and foreign corporate houses play for the larger political and commercial interests.
While there are genuine privacy concerns because the new laws may render the end-to-end encryption irrelevant, flagging off fake or undesirable posts on Twitter or Facebook is not easy. Apart from fact-check, which itself is a huge exercise, personal perspectives, ideological and political biases make it almost impossible to establish a credible system. For example, calling RSS a communal organisation would appear genuine to a large section of people while the ruling establishment would obviously feel enraged.
The best way is to allow free space while curbing the tendency to abuse and post fake material. This is easier said than done, as organised cells are operating as troll armies and propaganda machines. Indians know what bilge the so-called WhatsApp university has been churning out. Home Minister Amit Shah has gone on record, explaining how the BJP’s IT cell could make false information viral.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi would do better not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. While it is not easy to ban big American companies given India’s strategic ties, Modi should not nurture antipathy towards Twitter because the balance of power has begun to shift. He has built his larger-than-life image using social media and even his rivals concede, his dominance on these platforms gives him a huge advantage. His government cannot talk of commitment to freedom of speech at global platforms and act ruthlessly to crush dissent.
If IT Minister Ravishankar Prasad expresses concerns about incendiary material which can trigger communal passions, people are entitled to expect a holistic approach from the government on communal harmony, and campaigns to disturb social peace. India must be run on the basis of its Constitution and every government should do its best to uphold the values of equality, justice and freedom. The legal framework to deal with social media has to be consistent with the law of the land.
New challenges are to be tackled creatively, with the same democratic spirit that is mandated by the Constitution. Banning or exiting social media platforms is not the solution. A big power like India cannot even dream of moving in reverse gear. A deeply connected world will pose unforeseen problems but the way forward is to deal with them with sincerity and objectivity. If technology has heightened the noise of democracy, the response is to heighten the level of tolerance and understanding, not to shut the door on the outside world.