Illustration: Anand Naorem
Illustration: Anand Naorem

THE IDEA of “offence” and “hurt sentiments” always makes for tricky mud in a democracy. Unfortunately, Communication and IT Minister Kapil Sibal tramped clumsily into that ground with almost zero safety nets a few days ago.

The outrage over his request to Internet giants — Facebook, Twitter, Google and Microsoft — to pre-screen and delete offensive material going up on their platforms seems pretty justified. No matter how one dresses up the request, it smacks, at best, of ill-thought out impracticality; at worst, of highhanded censorship. And it must be resisted.

But Sibal’s misadventure is not necessarily all negative. In a sense, the social media is the last decade’s most paradigm-altering invention. It has collapsed geography and time and social hierarchy. It is radically redefining the way human beings relate to each other. Changing the way we think, use language, create meaning, order our world, construct information, organise societies and wield power. To understand its exhilarations, one has to only think of the revolutions it has enabled; the protests it’s given voice to; the real-time videos from war zones it’s made possible; the power it has put in people’s hands. Add to this its egalitarian culture, its virtual communities of shared interests; its intellectual synapses; its free swapping of information; the creative efflorescence and sheer human chatter it has enabled and one is still sitting only at the baseline of what is yet possible. It’s not for nothing that the Internet and social media is billed as a strong contender for the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize.

On the flip side though, the social media seems to have uncorked and amplified some of human nature’s darkest and most shallow impulses. The Internet is slopping with bigotry, hate, prejudice, malice, calumny, slander, propaganda, unsubstantiated opinion and indefensible offence. It’s not just extreme cases of incitement to violence that is disturbing, it’s the sheer proliferation of personal opinion now travelling at the speed of light — unverified, unsubstantiated, unchallenged. It’s as if we have voluntarily attached a megaphone to every malcontent, every bout of malicious water-cooler gossip, every drunken bitch session in the world. All of this has always had its legitimate place in the world. But the trouble is, the social media has not just collapsed geography and time, it has collapsed the skin between the public and the private — releasing both the power and the peril of that act. What was once merely high-octane personal opinion now passes for public discourse. The world must take note of the public mood in 140 characters — even if it’s knee-jerk, brutish and fleeting. The social media, therefore, has not just nurtured creative communities, it’s birthed virtual lynch mobs. It’s not just prised the world open and freed people up; it’s stripped many of their civility. It’s as if, to quote writer Hari Kunzru, people get particularly abusive online because they forget there is another human being at the other end.

So what of this should be ignored, what combated? What must be defended as the right to free speech — regardless of the trouble it brings — and what deserves some legitimate blowback? What form should that blowback take? Just as societies across millennia have wrestled to formulate rules and common principles that would bind them as a community, does the social media need to develop some norms for itself without losing its freedoms? What, in the first place, are the correct questions we should be asking about this phenomenon?

What was once merely highoctane personal opinion now passes for public discourse. The world must take note of the public mood in 140 characters

Sibal’s attempt to grapple with some of the disturbing aspects of the social media may have boomeranged, therefore, but his foray should still serve to crack open a much-needed debate about some of the real dilemmas and discomforts of the medium.

Censorship, clearly and vehemently, is not the answer and the problems with Sibal’s approach are, of course, instantly visible: Facebook has 800 million users worldwide; of that India would count for at least 30 million. To abide by Sibal’s request, on an average, Facebook would have to wade through at least 90 million updates a day. Add the numbers for Twitter, Yahoo, Microsoft, Google and YouTube and the figures are simply astronomical. Even if these companies hired platoons of people wielding thought-sieves, how could it be humanly possible to sift through all the content floating around in cyberspace?

But feasibility is not the real issue Sibal floundered on. It’s quite plausible that technology would enable these platoons to block a lot of offensive material based on key words and other tools. And, as Facebook and Google have pointed out, they already have policy frameworks through which they act on complaints. But the deeper — and much more dangerous — sticking point is, who is to define what is offensive? And are we really willing to submit our freedoms to the cleansing zeal of “armies of elves reading everyone’s Facebook posts”, as Kunzru again puts it?

“Community standards”, “our country’s cultural ethos”, “religious sentiment” — terms Sibal used to defend his move are all shingle on a very dangerous slope (and alarmingly similar to right-wing rhetoric). What can possibly pass for “community standard” in a country where some communities don’t require women to wear a blouse while others want them to wear veils; where some find it offensive that girls drink at a bar while others are happily polygamous? Where one person’s freedom of expression is another person’s hurt sentiment?

Sibal reportedly presented several pictures as examples of what he deems “unacceptably” offensive. One of them was an unspeakable image of Prophet Mohammad being desecrated; another of Goddess Saraswati similarly reviled; a third of Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh mercilessly lampooned. Everyone who’s seen the first two samples has vouched that they cross the limits of decency and present a real challenge. The third is the flimsiest ratification. Certainly, there are some safeguards public figures have a right to, but to be protected from satire — no matter how tasteless — surely can’t be one of them.

But the first two examples also present a different kind of predicament. According to Shashi Tharoor, Congress MP, writer and one of India’s most avid tweeters, as long as the freedom of art, literature and political thought is kept sacrosanct, no one can really argue against action taken against images like these that deliberately incite hatred and are like taking “a lit match to a petrol pump”.

That seems a sound argument except that such categories are always damagingly subjective. It is almost impossible to arrive at a universal definition of what is “deliberate incitement”, legitimate “sentiment” or a “lit match”. The ban on Prof James Laine’s book on Shivaji, the vandalising of Bhandarkar Oriental Institute in Pune, the exiling of MF Husain and Salman Rushdie, the controversy over AK Ramanujan’s essay on theRamayan — to name just a few gross violations of free expression — were all predicated at the altar of “hurt sentiment”.

‘Lies, rumours, abuse, anything goes on the social media. It’s almost as if the medium enjoys a kind of parliamentary privilege,’ says J&K CM Omar Abdullah

Sachin Pilot, Sibal’s junior minister, admits to the tricky tightrope between liberal values and legitimate monitoring. But it does not help the ministers’ cause that the Intermediary Guidelines Rules, 2011, notified under the IT Act, 2008, seems to bestow an alarmingly giant broom to the cleaning elves. Far from a precise definition of what would constitute incitement to violence and hatred, the causes of offence in the Act covers an astonishingly sweeping range: it says any content that is “harmful, threatening, abusive, harassing, blasphemous, objectionable, defamatory, vulgar, obscene, pornographic, paedophilic, libellous, invasive of another’s privacy, hateful, disparaging or racially, ethnically or otherwise objectionable…” should be taken off within 36 hours of a complaint.

It also bans content that is “lascivious or appeals to prurient interest” or “threatens friendly relations with foreign countries or insults foreign countries” or is “grossly offensive and menacing”.

Such sanitising zeal, to put it mildly, is bound to create more tricky mud. In fact, a quicksand for democratic liberties. As Rahul Roushan, founder of Faking News, a satirical website, says, “In the real world too, people deal with objectionable and ridiculous stuff by just ignoring it. Why not online too?”

Young, quick-shooting tweeple often urge citizens on the older, slower twin planet called Earth not to take life so seriously. Get a dose of humour, they say. See it for what it is. The social media mirrors the real world in its percentage of good and evil. Why focus on the evil?

There is truth in that, but the social media is a now a very real player in public life and even as one resists government regulation, one has to understand the nature of the beast, acknowledge the unique qualities it possesses and recognise the unparalleled bruises it can inflict. There is, for instance, the unprecedented speed, amplification and cumulative impacts the medium can accrue to itself. The way it enables disparate people to hunt in packs, at its mildest, like roving school gangs bullying loners in the schoolyard. There is also the particularly offensive quality of abuse one can belch out under the protective mask of anonymity and geographic distance. (There are things people can say masquerading as BishopofBaghdad or PurpleTruths, for instance, that they would never say in the flesh.) Disagreement on Twitter or comment trails, therefore, can very quickly descend into a test of one’s appetite for a catfight. It’s as if people have passed through some sort of a Smirnoff lens and become their most bestial self. Again, what makes this most disconcerting and difficult to ignore is the loss of the wall between public and private. With social media, very often, even the pretence of parameters for what one can say in public has faded. The ruder you are, the smarter you’re considered. It’s no longer necessary to marshall facts or cogent argument: just a handle and some bile can get you space in the town square. Social media is not just an egalitarian force, therefore, it’s the great leveller: in a Twitter face-off, the lowest form of belligerence can best the highest intellect. And dislike is no longer a matter of personal opinion, it’s public spectacle.

As J&K Chief Minister Omar Abdullah says, “Lies, rumours, abuse, anything goes on the social media. There is no repercussion. It’s almost as if the medium enjoys a kind of parliamentary privilege! And silence is no longer a possible response because once something is said it keeps ballooning until you refute it.”

But as Nikhil Pawa, editor, says, “If I’m not defaming anyone, why should I not have the right to offend?” The right to offend is indeed the foundation stone on which a lot of robust intellectual and political dissidence stands on. To lose that would be to lose a crucial societal freedom.

What makes all this doubly complicated is that the medium’s tricky attributes are also its greatest strength: its speed, cumulative impacts, anonymity, plurality, disembodiedness and eclecticism. This is what allows many highly intelligent bloggers, tweeters and YouTube users to get past authority and speak their minds. This is what ensures creative polyphony and responsiveness. This is what allows many fragile communities — battered women, drug users, alcoholics, homosexuals who have not outed themselves and scores of others — to seek help and solace and rehabilitation online. This is what ensures the free flow of thoughts as never before.

So how is one to combat its ill-effects without stripping it of its powers?

India, of course, is not the only country grappling with the cleft nature of this medium. As Centre for Policy Research Director Pratap Bhanu Mehta says, the issues raised by Sibal may have been served better by stacking up a completely different set of questions.

What should be the legislative framework that governs the medium, for instance? Under what circumstances should the State step in? Given the difficulty of defining “offence” and “sentiment”, it may be wiser to focus on content for which no “freedom of speech” argument can be made: absolute calumny, for instance, or baseless and malicious slander. Earlier there was no judicial recourse for material published online; now the injured party can take online practitioners to court for libel and defamation. (It may be a laborious process but seems the sanest one.)

There are other ruses to tackle the other riddles of the medium. As far as gratuitous offence goes, as Kunzru says, the only antidote is the civil society remedy of just more online speech. Or as one young Internet user puts it, “If the I&B ministry wants to clean up Facebook, all they have to do is get active on Facebook and report what they find offensive. Get on the same playing field and use the same tools available to the raucous millions. It’s surprisingly easy. Why doesn’t the government try catching up with the world instead of trying to rein it in?”

This is arguably the soundest way for the medium to domesticate itself without losing its edge. When #reasonstobeatyourgirlfriend began trending on Twitter, for instance, thousands of users tweeted back #reasonstobeatyourgirlfriend — “NONE. You don’t deserve to have one if you think this is cool”, criticising that such misogyny was trending and forcing it offline. The best way to combat negativity online then is to criticise it online. The other route is to trust the human animal and rely on the fact that very quickly different online communities will tire of the specious flamers and trolls and habitual spammers that visit them and start weeding them out — creating their own little clean corners in the Internet.

A recent issue of Bloomberg (5 December 2011), in fact, had an interesting article about a growing tribe of highly-paid professional online moderators, who are defenders of free speech but are hired to clean up its vile side-effects. In the article, Tamara Littleton, CEO of London-based company E-Moderation, says, “We really see the dark underbelly of the world.” Keith Bilous, owner of ICUC, another moderation company, says, “Some Fridays, you feel you need to spend two hours in the shower because it gets so disgusting.”

But the fact that these firms are increasingly being hired by online entities to monitor their discussion boards and Twitter and Facebook pages is proof that self-regulation is kicking in without State intervention. (It’s also proof that one might be veering dangerously towards over-sanitised political correctness as well.)

The New York Times also ran a lively debate in its letters section recently about Facebook’s real-name policy and whether this should become the Internet norm as “online identification leads demonstrably to increased accountability and civility”. Predictably, the arguments ran strong on both sides of the divide.

In the final analysis though, perhaps the greatest peril of the social media will not be the offence or excesses it allows but the dumbing down it is accelerating. As Mehta puts it, “The nature of the medium is shrinking the space for self-reflection. There is no psychological room for thinking or revising one’s views. One feels forced to harden and stand by one’s views because one gets no second chances.”

Add to that the slightly mobbish, hysterical and ephemeral nature of social media engagements and the power and peril of it crystallises itself most clearly. Even as the medium helps 99 percent of the world express itself more loudly and clearly than ever before, the greatest challenge to its practitioners will be to not get occupied in the head by its noise.

With inputs from Kunal Majumder and Nishita Jha