Social Media Turning Into a ‘Bhasma Sur’

Beep… Beep… Beep! Still in bed and half-awake, you are waiting for your morning cuppa and the newspaper when the ubiquitous, shrill beeps of your smartphone pierce the serene morning calm of your home. You intuitively reach for the indispensable gadget and find it deluged with a slew of messages on WhatsApp, Facebook and other social media platforms.

You curiously open up one of them – an appalling video footage of a rowdy crowd kicking and punching an innocent girl wearing skirts and a trifle revealing top. And the caption of the video describes it as a recent incident in a particular Indian state ruled by a particular party with its activists punishing the girl for “hurting the cultural moorings of the country”. Besides a bad taste in mouth, the footage leaves you with self-doubts:

How can the activists of the party you voted for and whose government is prima facie taking so many of those progressive steps, can indulge in such retrograde behaviour? You wonder if you erred on your voting decision and if the mistake must not be rectified in the next elections. Even before the morning newspaper – your longtrusted source of the daily news reaches your hand, you find your political vision biased and clouded.

The self-doubt lingers on till a few days later when you receive the same video footage describing it as an offshore incident, assiduously explaining the telltale evidence of the foreign origin of the incident. And you thank God that it did not happen here and the party you voted for had nothing to do with that abhorrent incident.

Move to another message, received probably the same day on your breakfast table. Your phone beeps and you pick it up to find forwarded a trifle obscene video in a social media group of your old and naughty school-days’ chums. Your wife sitting by your side has a furtive glance at the message – a soft pornographic video.

Even as you hastily seek to delete the embarrassing footage, the quizzical glint in your wife’s eyes becomes sharper: why can’t you drop out of that “wretched, perverts’ group?” And you probably can’t for the fear of inviting that sarcastic, moralist tag from your dear childhood buddies. Sure enough, your day stands soured. And at the weekend, a trifle upset with your kids’ 24×7 fixation with mobile phones at the cost of their studies, you decide to give them a dressing down.

But your rebellious teenage daughter shots back amid the supportive glance of her younger brother, “Papa, after all we are using the phones only for exchange of study notes from friends, besides talking and messaging to them. May be we do a play a bit of games, but we are not exchanging those obscene videos.” And your moral authority over the kids gets a huge dent, leaving you wondering if one of them, who too have access to your phone, happened to have a look at one of those idiotic messages, received from your childhood buddies during the rush office hours and you forgot to delete.

Amid proliferating smartphones and Internet services reaching the hinterland of the country, various social media have begun affecting the lives of one and all as never before and nothing else ever did it. Its ubiquitous imprint is writ large on almost every aspect of the day to day life, ranging from normal simple, personal communication to political discourse, news and views, information and entertainment and what not. But thanks to the unregulated growth of social media as a communication platform with complete absence of any self-imposed editorial discipline or statutory monitoring mechanism of contents whizzing past across it, social media is fast turning into a ‘bhasmasur’ – the mythical monster running riot and completely beyond the control of its creators. To begin with, it’s trying fiercely to elbow out all the traditionally authentic news sources like newspapers, television news channels and news portals in the garb of itself being a news channel in its own right. But scratch the veneer and lift the garb – you will find a devious disinformation – dispensing and rumour-mongering machine at work.

Thanks to the free-for-all, free-of-cost and virtually nil-accountability characteristics of various social media platforms, every Tom, Dick and Harry, who considers himself to be the fountainhead of sagacity, splash these medium with his pearls of wisdom on each and every issue as per his own convictions and ideology – often convoluted, biased and prejudiced – rooted in his sectarian beliefs and worse, his vested interests and in the process, he manages to impress and convince gullible people with no dearth of their ilk. It’s here where social media becomes liable to be exploited by organisations with vested interests, including political parties and communal and terror outfits alike, as powerful tool to carry out their disinformation campaign and machinations.

Be it the 2017 communal violence in Bashirhat in West Bengal or the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots, the role of social media in fomenting and aggravating communal troubles is writ large for everybody to see. The one-member judicial commission of Justice Vishnu Sahai, which probed the cause of Muzaffarnagar riots, had held a video clip, circulated on WhatsApp and YouTube, as one of the main reasons behind the riot. The clip, showing a youth being lynched, was described as killing of two Hindu boys, who had earlier killed a Muslim youth for allegedly teasing their sister. As transpired later, the video was actually from Pakistan. Even the July 2017 Basirhat communal clashes were triggered by a controversial Facebook post by a Class 11 Hindu student.

A few days prior to the Bashirhat trouble, another offensive post by a teenager in an instant messaging platform created trouble in Mohammad Bazar in Birbhum district of Bengal. There was another incident on June 14, 2017 in Harishchandrapur in Malda by a school teacher that sparked tension in the area. If a teenager, with little understanding of realpolitik can inadvertently trigger a communal riot by a controversial post on a social media, it’s no brainier to fathom its vulnerability in the hands of ‘jihadi’ terrorist and other nefarious extremists in carrying out their activities, as a powerful communication tool.

In fact, one recently witnessed a spurt of ‘forwards’ on WhatsApp cautioning people against joining a some particular closed group on it, said to be formed by terror outfits like ISIS and alQaeda. The message warned that one would not be able to extricate oneself from the group after joining it. One cannot vouch for the authenticity of such messages, but if it’s true, God save the innocent people, who may land in the terror outfits trap and making them liable to be tried under the stern antiterror act, Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, as per which any association of any kind with any terror outfit is a serious offence. Incidentally, it’s not that social media has the potential of pushing innocent people, quite unknowingly to them, to the wrong side of the draconian anti-terror law.

The list of statutes that the people may find themselves pitted themselves against, is long, starting with the Indian Penal Code, the Indian Telegraph Act and the contemporary Information Technology Act, the sections 66 and 67 of which enumerates various offences ranging from transmission of offensive, obscene, sexually explicit text, audio or video messages besides those of breach of privacy, cyber terrorism etc.

And transmission here means not only sending them but also receiving, forwarding, publishing, collecting, seeking, browsing, downloading, promoting, exchanging, distributing or even retaining them. Obviously, social media may be owing its mushrooming at present to the fact that the government may not be having sufficient manpower, technology or resources with it at present to check its devastating effects and can’t deploy them without wasting a neat sum of the taxpayers’ money, but it has already draw the ‘laxman rekha’ in the field and it’s the solemn duty of the creators like of various social media like Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Jan Koum of WhatsApp etc owe a moral duty to crores of Indian and the legal duty to the Indian statutes that they tame the monsters created by them.

Thankfully, as evident from the recent spurt of full-page Facebook ads in major national dailies on how to distinguish between fake and real news, major social media platforms appear to be waking up to the menace of their potentially dangerous use.

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