City City Bang Bang, Columns

Social media & the freedom of expression

One can drive a very large truck of suspect cargo through the door marked ‘patriotism’. Once the integrity of the nation is invoked and the spectre of social and communal unrest is seen as being at stake, the state buys for itself a lot of room for actions that might have otherwise seemed unpalatable. In that sense, the decision to impose some kind of regulation on social media in the aftermath of the Assam violence and the events that followed, might have passed muster on the whole, despite its problematic nature.

But instead, the government has chosen to act with staggering incompetence and transparent dishonesty, in deciding to use this discretion by trying to block a reported 300 items that include websites and 21 twitter handles, many of which have nothing to do with Assam or what happened thereafter. As persuasively demonstrated by Shivam Vij and Sadanand Dhume among others, the list of those blocked is a bizarre one, as it includes journalists and politicians among others, and the names indicate that the Government ‘s intentions are mala fide in that there is a clear attempt to muzzle dissent as well as plain stupid given that there are some on the list who by the widest stretch of imagination, cannot be seen as a threat to anything, let alone something as lofty as the integrity of the nation. What the state has effectively done is to confirm all anxieties that existed about its real intentions. That it has a fundamental discomfort with criticism and a deep hostility towards any attempt to ridicule its actions and that it will use any excuse it gets to launch an attack on the freedom of expression on the Internet. Besides, even if the attempt had been honest in trying to stop rumour-mongering, the actions taken were hardly likely to have the desired impact. The digital world is too agile and inventive for the lumbering machinery of the government to match up to, and would easily bypass these crude attempts at blocking the flow of information.

But there is an issue with social media that needs some introspection. When all readers turn broadcasters, what happens to the rights of those who are being written about? Earlier the freedom to expression was effectively outsourced to mainstream media and while it strove to represent public opinion, it did not allow the public to express itself directly, except in highly controlled ways. Getting a letter published in the Letters to the Editor space, for instance, was often a heroic struggle. Traditional media is governed, on paper, by a set of guidelines and rules that attempt to provide protection to those impacted by what they publish or broadcast and legal redress is available to those that feel aggrieved by the same. In reality, particularly in India, the act of going to court and pursuing a case of defamation is so difficult, expensive and time-consuming that the right for redress often remains theoretical. The protection, such as it is exists, comes because news organisations have some internal guidelines about what they will or will not publish, and imperfect as they increasingly might be, at least they exist.

But when it comes to social media, even this filter is effectively absent. The question that might well lie at the heart of this debate is about the changing nature of the public and the private. Social media promotes a form of private musing that gets picked up by microphone and relayed all over the world; in its intimacy and immediacy it gives us the illusion of a private opinion expressed softly, but in its real time connectedness it makes the private extremely loud and public. We superimpose the codes of privately expressed opinion on a public platform in the name of freedom, without acknowledging that such freedom has never been available to us. In private thoughts and conversations, we are free to abuse people, make inappropriate jokes, wish them grievous harm, fantasise luridly about them and impute motives but we cannot do so in our public utterances without attracting potential consequences. Even in private conversation, we do not enjoy absolute anonymity as is often the case with social media. As the private becomes more public both wittingly and otherwise, the need to mark the boundaries and guard them zealously will grow. The real issue is here as much about the demarcation of the private, the ‘freedom from impression’, as it were, as it is about freedom of expression. While the right to personal expression has always been an integral part of democracy, the right to a public platform with enormous reach, velocity of transmission and permanence has certainly not.

The sense that any public utterance can, in the name of freedom of expression, come without consequences is what drives a significant strand of behaviour on social media today. in theory, such consequences might exist, but we have seen very few examples of these being visited upon those that are guilty of crossing the lines that have been laid down. As last week’s column argued, in the new world of democratised and decentralised information flows, the reflexive support for the freedom of all expression that is rooted in the assumptions of an earlier era need to be revisited. Till that happens social media will remain a space that bristles with the anarchic energy of freedom without providing adequate protection against the misuse of this freedom. This time, the government’s incompetence might have made it easy to summon up outrage and push back hard, but more subtle and insidious efforts are likely to follow. The fault line that exists between the technologies of democratisation and power structures that seek centralisation is a defining one in our times, and the battle between the two is by no means over.