Two amazing things have happened with the proliferation of social media in the last one decade: it has helped connect people all over the globe, often bringing long lost friends and family members together; two, it has redefined the way information is disseminated, thus giving birth to an alternative media space which takes head-on mainstream media by challenging its hegemony, asking for accountability and more often than not by discrediting a particular narrative being promoted, so that the “other” too can be heard. No wonder, leaders such as Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Donald Trump, who have often been treated with disdain by mainstream media, prefer social media to connect with the people. So it is surprising that an Indian government headed by Prime Minister Modi of all people should take such a stentorian tone in asking WhatsApp, a Facebook owned company, to get its act together, so as to ensure that it implements measures to curb the spread of “irresponsible and explosive messages” that lead to sporadic law and order situations, including death by lynching. So a user-driven platform, where messages are encrypted from end to end, making interference by even WhatsApp itself next to impossible, has been asked in no uncertain terms to monitor the content generated by its users, thus defeating the whole purpose of having such an unmonitored messaging site. The implicit threat being, “or else…” It goes without saying that fake news, propaganda, rumours and outlandish claims are a problem on all such sites, especially when these incite people to go on a rampage and cause deaths. It is because of this that WhatsApp, in its reply to the Indian government has enumerated certain measures including “a new label…that highlights when a message has been forwarded versus composed by the sender”. Chances are that this will help, to an extent, identify the source of such fake news, and the fear of being identified will stop the purveyors of such hoax posts from disseminating such misinformation. WhatsApp has also announced a reward of $50,000 to researchers who can suggest measures to ensure that false news is identified and stopped from spreading, without interfering with the users’ freedom of speech and expression. Whether or not all this is successful, remains to be seen, especially since for every loophole sealed, another loophole is born—as is the unwritten rule on worldwide web—bypassing the security measures taken.
The larger issue here is the completely avoidable knee-jerk reaction of asking technology companies to pull up their socks, or shutting down internet facilities, when the need of the day is stricter implementation of law and order. Every time there is turmoil in some part of the country, the worldwide web is the first casualty, with both the Centre and the state governments shutting down internet, ostensibly “to stop the spread of rumours”, by taking recourse to the most draconian laws possible. According to www.internetshutdowns.in, India, in 2018, has already reported 65 cases of shutdowns. The number was 70 in 2017. This is shameful, for this goes against the spirit of democracy, which is freedom and liberty. It does not behove the world’s largest democracy to behave like a police state at the first sign of trouble. Instead, the government’s focus should be on educating the people about the possible misuse of such user driven platforms. It is not that the government does not carry out “social awareness” campaigns. No movie hall in this country would dare to show any film without first showing the mandatory clips against smoking. Even a whiff of cigarette smoke on screen results in viewers being constantly reminded of the injury that smoking causes to health. Of course, in the case of fake news, the message can be taken to the users without being so intrusive. Millions of Indians still do not realise how platforms such as WhatsApp can be misused. Sometimes they learn it the hard way, more often than not, they don’t. It is this lacuna that needs to be filled with the help of civil society organisations, citizens’ groups and community leaders. The government has a major role to play in educating these people on how not to let their WhatsApp groups be contaminated by fake posts, on how the hotheads can be controlled at the citizens’ level when rumours start spreading, and so on and so forth. Why not flood WhatsApp with positive content? Why not launch an advertising blitzkrieg on “checking the news before being swayed by it”? Surely, all this is better than the tendency to curtail civil liberties at the first sign of trouble.