City City Bang Bang, Columns

Information as virus

As the world is becoming more intricately connected, its relationship with information is changing in a fundamental way. Three unconnected events -the killing of innocent Sikhs at a Wisconsin gurdwara, the exodus of North-Easterners from many parts of India following rumours and the continuing saga of Julian Assange and Wikileaks all shed light on changing nature of our engagement with information and the new anxieties that surround its use and abuse.

In the case of the gurdwara shootings, what is striking is the power of ignorance that is determined not to know better. In a world overloaded with information, it would have taken a few milliseconds to find out a little more about Sikhism and come to the conclusion that it had nothing to do with 9/11 or any attacks on Americans. Horrific as all hate crimes are, here the horror is given an added edge by the fact that the shooter got his hate wrong by targeting people, who even by his warped standards, were unconnected with the imagined grievances he harboured in his mind. The incident suggests that no amount of information, however widely circulated and easily accessible can by itself overcome determined ignorance and pre-conceived prejudice. In a larger sense, in spite of the dramatically higher volume of information that circulates through the world today, it has made little dent on the volume of prejudice.

The sudden exodus from the North East from many Indian cities is almost entirely the result of a surfeit of information, the multiplication of motivated rumour by social media. Both the Mumbai violence and the North Eastern exodus were enabled by social media, in the former case, by way of morphed pictures and videos using footage from incidents outside Assam and in the latter by falsehoods and exaggerations. Even when the state uttered many assurances and for once politicians across parties closed ranks, the rush to leave continued unabated. The power of unsubstantiated rumour is hardly a new phenomenon; we have many instances of it in India. it occurs in almost every riot, political scandal and once in a while in the form of miracles like Ganesha drinking all over the country, but in this case the key role was played by a new technology, one that promises to free up information from being controlled by a few, enabling greater transparency.

In the third instance, we see how the truth too can be deeply contentious. The attack against Assange is unprecedented in the naked use of every instrument that is available to governments in shutting him down and locking him up. His offence is one that strikes at the heart of the anxieties of the state in having its inner mechanisms revealed. Wikileaks tells us for sure what we have otherwise suspected – that the state acts in ways vastly different from what it professes, and does so quite cynically. But the issue is not merely about showing us the true colours of most regimes; it has to do with the presumption that all information has automatic value.

By demonising all private information as a sinister form of secret, and making the truth, no matter how private or how sensitive, a public commodity, Wikileaks builds a crude model of our reality, one which ignores the need sometimes for information to be cloaked and for appearances to be maintained. Not all truth sets us free, and while the withholding of information has undoubtedly been used to create power asymmetries, not all information can carry an air of presumptive righteousness. By setting it free in its rawest form, Wikileaks shows us that truth too has limits on its value. Wikileaks makes the truth pornographic, by making it a titillating display of undifferentiated wares, a laying bare of the inner for the satisfaction of sight alone.

In an earlier era, when the transmission of information was centrally regulated, it was easier to think of it as a resource that needs to be shared more widely and made more accessible. More information was almost always better, and the battle to extract more was often a heroic one. The reason why journalism was seen through a lens of romance was because it represented the act of extricating the truth from the jaws of the powerful and the corrupt. The RTI act in India for instance has been a key instrument in enabling greater transparency and accountability of powerful and hitherto opaque institutions. But with the greater penetration of the market into media and the dramatic democratisation of information, not just in terms of being able to access but also in being able to broadcast it, the default belief in its inherent and limitless legitimacy needs to be rethought.

As media gets seen as having an axe to grind, its coverage of issues gets to be consumed with a filter in place. This creates many parallel narratives of truth, each claiming that it represents reality better. We don’t really know what happened in Assam for the news comes to us contaminated and our 0doubts about it taint it even further. And social media, which bypasses traditional channels of information, is in the name of freedom of expression, able to re-circulate rumours that speak to the deepest anxieties of those vulnerable. The valorisation of the freedom of expression is a product of its context; as information becomes less scarce, more motivated and less inhibited in its expression of human frailties, it might be time to evaluate whether we need more robust mechanisms for creating some sense of order. The value of free expression was derived in part from its scarce availability; today’s problem is the one that comes with its chaotic plenty. Not regulating this in any way may not be as a romantic an idea as it once was.