City City Bang Bang, Columns

Re-negotiating our freedoms?

Is WhatsApp to blame for the lynchings that have taken place in the country recently? There is no doubt that WhatsApp messages have played a key role in some of the incidents, but how valid is it to place the blame on and acting against what is after all, a medium of circulating information?

The argument against taking such a view has been made forcefully by many commentators. The real problem, they aver, is not a messaging service, but the people who use it. The fact that WhatsApp is used all over the world without people lynching each other is proof that the problem is not technology, but its use in India. Using a similar argument, one could act against any mode of transmitting information, because of the effect that it might create.

While it easy to agree with the argument that the principal problem lies with the users of this service and not the service itself, that doesn’t mean that no change is required in the way that we regulate new forms of media. Technology is not innocent, just because it carries no mischief in its intent. The users might be responsible but their usage is not independent of the technology; indeed, it is often deeply embedded in it.

WhatsApp, for instance, offers invisible and instant circulation of information within a closed group. On WhatsApp, information is highly contagious as it spreads quickly in a hothouse-like environment. A large number of people bound by a shared connection can talk to each other in real time. The information shared needs no external validation, and the dynamics of a group like this means that opinions get validated quickly. Given the secure and closed nature of the pipeline, ideas that would normally not be uttered aloud, become much easier to contemplate. Over time, the bizarre can become the norm, and outlandishness of a belief may no longer disqualify it from active consideration. This functionality of WhatsApp does not result in breeding lynch mobs everywhere, but it does make it easy for this to happen in contexts such as the Indian one.

Equally, the same technology used similarly, can produce altogether another kind of result. Gathering donations for organising relief work in a disaster zone becomes so much easier thanks to the same combination of a closed group with a common intent being able to circulate information instantly. The same messaging service that was used to organise lynchings, was used to a completely different effect in Kerala where it helped save many lives.

This pattern can be also seen in other forms of social media. Twitter has democratised our political and cultural discourse immeasurably and given voice to people in a way not conceivable before. It has created much greater accountability amongst those that hitherto had a disproportionate share of power, be they politicians, commentators or corporations. Equally it has given rise to a discourse steeped in hate and abuse, which has seeped into many areas of our real-world lives.

The issue is not whether WhatsApp is good or bad, or whether it is complicit or blameless, but that the world produced by new technologies is fundamentally different. We cannot use old concepts in their unchanged form in this new context. Every new technology reshapes social relationships and re-orders notions of the legitimate. When we developed the ability to travel beyond the speed generated by human or animal bodies, we had to reconstitute our ideas of transportation and created an elaborate new system of rules in order to manage the use of that technology. We willingly restricted some freedoms in order to function better. Traffic rules, speed limits, parking laws- all of these are ways in which we regulate ourselves.

The resistance to regulate the flow of information in a digital world needs to be revisited. Freedom of expression as an ideal, cannot mean exactly what it did in an earlier time. In any case, the ability to broadcast news and views to a mass audience has always been controlled. Those able to circulate information in the mass domain were governed by a set of laws, and followed rules and codes that were reasonably well codified. While fake news or malicious rumours were always in circulation, their ability to do harm was restricted given their limited reach. Through a combination of formal and informal methods, the veracity of news was never in serious question. Tabloids, for instance were widely consumed, but rarely mistaken for serious news. Today, that is no longer the case.

The sudden and complete ability that all of us have to broadcast our views to anyone in the world is a development that has not been accommodated in the social, legal and ethical structures that we have constructed for ourselves. To continue to use old frameworks rigidly in the name of an ideology or belief system, is potentially short-sighted. When the velocity of information transmission changes as dramatically as it has, norms involving the circulation of information must surely change. Rumours spread by word-of-mouth transmitted using older technologies moved at a certain speed and in a certain way. Social media changes those rules completely. The fact that the key to these society-altering technologies is held by a few private companies that simply do not have the capability nor the intention to deal with the implications of what they are able to control complicates issues.

A new society is being fashioned around a new medium. We need to negotiate new rules for this world. To begin with, we need to acknowledge that the old rules don’t apply. What the new rules should be is a difficult question, for the risks cut both ways. We could over-regulate new forms of media and give away many hard-fought freedoms or we could regress into a state driven by primitive passions by not recognising the need for change and doing nothing at all. The answers may be elusive, but the questions need to be asked.

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