Last year, when things were somewhat normal, and people went to see comedy shows, comedian Agrima Joshua, during a live show, cracked a joke about the Shivaji statue that is to be installed in the middle of the sea. This year, amidst the pandemic and the lockdown, Raj Thackeray’s party the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) reacted to the clip, went on rampage and vandalized the studio in which the clip was shot.
Amidst calls for strict action against Ms Joshua for her skit, came one of the most vicious verbal attacks you could ever hear. Shubham Mishra – a star on Indian YouTube, Instagram, TikTok and other platforms, known for his abusive language, and violent response to current affairs, issued brutal rape threats against her. This particularly abusive video caught media attention, and following outrage resulted in the police taking action. However, the tone of most his videos about the world at large has violent solutions to problems, and attracted over 3 lakh subscribers to his feed. This is content that would never ever exist on mainstream media because of the rules governing the media, not just in India but worldwide. But it exists without filters online on family platform such as YouTube.
Unlike mainstream media that has been regulated and has to follow a framework of what is appropriate and what is not, the internet has no such filters. It is the ultimate libertarian dream of a space with no rules and regulations, where the market decides what is appropriate and what is not. And, the market has often found edgy content that is highly consumable. Be it content around pornography, or around violence, or extreme verbal abuse, or fundamentalist hate against others – the internet has allowed hate to flourish, thrive, and attract others like it. We have all heard of stories of some ordinary people becoming self-radicalised after finding extremely violent fundamentalist content, mostly video, online. For the longest time these extreme groups stayed in their own corner of the internet, rarely engaging with the rest of us.
However, the coming in of web 2.0 and the boom in social changed all that. Platforms went out of their way to make the spreaders of hate content and fake news welcome. That is because they provided the sheer traction to attract others, form communities of interest glued together by hate, and get the platform in the news. But, now the hate and fake chickens have come home to roost. Worldwide, there is uproar about what social media platforms can be used for. The death of George Floyd and the protests that followed, brought into focus the role of social media platforms, and their ability to weaponise hate speech and fake news by being tolerant towards both in the name of free speech.
Fake news and hate speech are often seen as different phenomenon, but in fact are linked. Whether it is holocaust deniers, or anti-vaxxers , those who demonise religious groups, what we see is a merger between fake and hate. We see the bubbling over of alternate facts to defend the ‘otherising’ of people and communities. While there is fair consensus on dealing with fake news, it is not going to get anywhere unless you start a crackdown on hate groups using the web to push out their agenda.
Social media platforms seem to recognise this. Reddit – the home for the most uninhibited, no holds bar conversations has banned hate speech and shut down over 2000 forums that were racist and called for violence. Reddit, like other platforms that originate in the USA, used to uphold the rights of racist hatemongers to spew their ideology, because they believed that the American first amendment protected free speech. Reddit, like other US platforms, has in the past defended the use of its platforms by racists on the grounds that the American first amendment protects free speech, including that of bigots. However, in a recent change in policies it has said “communities and users that promote hate based on identity or vulnerability will be banned.” Last month, after much resistance, Facebook too said it will crack down on hate speech, including advertisements for politicians that fuel hate. This is after one of the world’s largest advertisers, Unilever, pulled out advertising budgets from Facebook, saying that it would rather its products did not appear amidst hate and divisiveness.
With the activists, advertisers and the pubic at large seeming to revolt against an internet without filters, it is likely that the these platforms will bring in place filters that moderate their platforms. And, once they moderate, it is anyone’s guess whether audiences will stay and continue to network in this new ‘safe’ internet; or will large numbers desert the current platforms and move to platforms that allow them to operate without filters
Neither hate speech nor fake news are going anywhere anytime soon. There may be a crackdown against both on the main social media platforms in response to the social upheaval that is currently being seen in the USA, but it is unlikely that it will move beyond the western world. In India, you do see vicious hatemongers like Shubham Mishra get taken down by social platforms, but only after he crossed the line by issuing rape threats.
As the web matures, as more families are on it, and as advertisers demand a more conducive environment to exhibit their products – it is likely that the communities of hate that did so much to build web 2.0 will disappear from the main platforms. And, that can only be a good thing.