On the eve of India’s Independence Day, The Wall Street Journal published an article that created a massive stir in the Indian political environment. Curated by Newley Purnell and Jeff Horwitz, the article highlighted how Facebook flouted its own rules which were colliding with the Indian Politics. This expose brought severe criticism to Facebook India management and its top public policy executive in India. Soon the demand for having a parliamentary probe and calling Facebook to investigate its Indian operation in this regard picked up momentum. Famous parliamentarian and head of Indian Parliament’s Information-Technology committee assured that the committee would seek justification from Facebook about this development.
This article categorically mentioned the names of politicians and ideologies which Facebook is allegedly cozying up with. However, reiterating the same in this blog would be redundant and would narrow our vision about the problem it has raised-which is Hate Speech. “Hate Speech” is not a new phenomenon, in fact, in Nazi Germany, the propaganda machine of Hitler used hate speeches to slur and demonize Jews. So in this new digital age, it becomes proportionately of more importance to evaluate the situation with more sincerity.
Technically we can define Hate Speech as “public speech that expresses hate or encourages violence towards a person or group based on something such as race, religion, sex, or sexual orientation“. Critics often include non-verbals such as symbols and flags which potentially or intentionally represent extremist ideologies and content. Famous among them is the Nazi Swastika. Hate speech is generally deployed as a tool to promote a certain ideology, marginalize certain sections of society, and incite emotional outrage for political benefits.
Social scientists described this as a global problem. Hate Speech has victimized both minorities and majorities throughout the globe. But in the end, it is always observed that it is the weakest section of society that suffers the most. One such example is the Rwandan Genocide in 1994, where the Tutsis, the second largest ethnic group of the country were subjected to violence. It is well reported that Hutus used radio station RTLM with the support of the government to openly spread the word of hate. For nearly a hundred days, armed with machetes, clubs, and old fashioned weapons, Hutus slaughtered Tutsis describing them as “cockroaches” and “snakes”. During this period more than 1 million people lost their lives, the majority of whom were Tutsis.
In this new era of digitalization, where social media has become a new part of our daily life, hate mongers have successfully used the platform for their advantage. Platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Whatsapp have provided a broader and quicker medium to peddle violence and hate which was previously relatively tough. The role of Facebook has been well documented in the Rohingya crisis.The UN fact-finding mission said, “Facebook has been a useful instrument for those seeking to spread hate, in a context where, for most users, Facebook is the Internet.” How Buddhist nationalists and leadership of Myanmar misused Facebook during the campaign of ethnic cleansing of Rohingyas is alarming for developing democracies in Asia. Similarly, Twitter and WhatsApp have also been found guilty by the Indian government for not taking appropriate actions to curb violence during the Delhi riots in 2020.
We all are aware that platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are in the end nothing but big business corporations. They are run by individuals with the sole intention of making profit. In an attempt to do so and engage viewers they deploy algorithms that trap the user in a bubble of his/her liking. Constant hate speech feeds and propaganda fades the rational temper of individuals, and this ultimately catalyzes the process of radicalizing and recruiting people in extremist outfits designed to spread racial, gender, and religious hatred.
So seeing the misuse of these social media platforms it becomes quite necessary to police these hate posts, comments, and videos for the larger good of the society. In the context of India, we have plenty of pre-existing laws and guidelines to take action against inflammatory posts and speeches. Provisions related to hate speeches are mentioned in the Indian Penal Code(IPC),1860 under Section 153A, 295A, and 295. Apart from these laws, social media platforms too have mechanisms and policies to keep a check on the content. They deploy technologies such as artificial intelligence, user reporting, and content moderators to regulate and take down inappropriate content. But as visible by several disclosures, these companies tend to deviate and modify their policies to suit their business in the various regions around the globe.
So what is the best solution? Well before answering that I would mention a historic judgment in Faheema Shirin Vs the State of Kerala case, in which Kerala High Court declared Right to Internet Access as a fundamental right, forming the part of the right to privacy and the right to education under Article21 of the Indian Constitution. It is of great significance as it acknowledges the internet as a basic necessity as food, water, and electricity. And in this very acknowledgment lies the solution that is to turn social media corporations into public utility corporations. I know this requires a Herculean will from the governments around the globe and also it demands something beyond imagination from owners of these corporations but in the end, it is for the greater good of humanity. It seems to be the only solution to set public accountability for these platforms.
In the end, I would like to make it clear that I strongly advocate the Freedom of Speech for every individual, but we should always exercise these liberties with certain restrictions. As a responsible citizen, we should be able to differentiate between three forms of speech which is a discussion, advocacy, and incitement. We should always discuss and debate on various issues in a suitable environment and advocate our opinions too but we should refrain from using our liberties to incite hate, violence, and intolerance in society. In the end, to distinguish between free speech and hate speech I would quote Newton Lee, a famous computer scientist and futurist, “There is a fine line between free speech and hate speech. Free speech encourages debate whereas hate speech incites violence.”
Content Credits: Abhishek Kandwal