Social Media: Heralding a New World Order

In the present times, we see that though social media gives us hope to reform traditional political discourse, yet at many levels, it merely replicates it. Social media thus is becoming this peculiar tool that marks the inimical symptoms of our times. 

 

Introduction

Social media’s impact on society is increasingly becoming an important topic across different fields of study. Social media platforms which were initially thought of as a way to connect with people across the globe also inadvertently became a source of news sharing. With technological advancements, social networking sites eventually became news sharing platforms, which to a large extent is being produced by individuals themselves. This also creates multiple narratives making their role pretty much evident in the flow of information. It, therefore, enables different social actors to influence and build opinions on important issues. This dissemination of information at such a large scale becomes a problem if it is fake or doctored. With so much anonymity, easy access and no watchdogs, this information becomes riskier and all the more problematic because it tends to set narratives that might be one-sided. Social media then becomes a tool (which is cost-efficient and can reach multiple and targeted audiences) in the hands of different social actors. The online platforms provide an alternative to the dominant socio-political setups. 

The following reading list tries to look at important aspects of the interaction between social media and society.

The digital space: An alternative to the dominant political discourse

According to Sahana Udupa

 

Abuse and disinformation should be approached as an important culture of mediatised politics in the digital age, which not only reflects extant political differences but significantly shapes what it means to participate in public life for a net fed generation.

 

The digital arena is becoming a new space for public discourse and political struggles. One such example is that of Occupy Movement where the activists used online platforms to raise opposition against their Government, thereby circumventing a new political space through online platforms. Another example is the online feminist activism (#metoo movement) that sought to register their protest through online platforms bringing into light the everyday struggles of women. At the same time, it is also observed that women who express their views and dissent on social media are subject to abuse. 

The Indian Government had enforced a ‘complete information blackout’, on 4th August 2019. The phone lines and the internet channels were disconnected. Though these Internet clampdowns have become a recurrent feature since 2008, this is mainly done to prevent the spread of information and suppress the dissenting voices. According to Onaiza Drabu:

Post 2010, social media has been the space of articulations of resistance for Kashmiris. Ironically, this time too, the one space that the state prohibited Kashmiris from accessing is the one where voices against the very move have been the loudest. Besides resistance, social media has also been the site for the diaspora’s recreations of home. For months before the military lockdown of August 2019, Twitter saw a warming phenomenon of Kashmiri Pandits and Kashmiri Muslims coming together after decades of hostility. Circumventing conversations around politics, they nostalgically reconstructed home.  

From the above example it becomes clear that for some sections of the society Social media becomes an important platform to register their dissent, protest and most importantly to speak for themselves and to be heard. These platforms then serve as a memory documenting different phenomena of society. 

However, in yet another example of Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm which employed counterfeit measures to extract personal data of more than 50 million Americans from Facebook. This data, which was extracted without the knowledge and consent of the individuals, was then used to tailor Presidential campaigns and messages for Donald Trump. This example clearly indicates how social media is being used as a tool to mould the public discourse in a way that favours those in power. With increasing consumption of social media for various reasons and the availability of limitless content on the internet, platforms are being constructed to make all kinds of information available as per the user's demand. With a single keyword being typed in google one is able to access information of their choice, but the question to be asked is if these are the only available choices? What role do the choices offered by these platforms play in shaping public opinion? The algorithm that goes behind this entire content creation process, offering choices in a particular way of ranking, sponsored content etc plays a vital role in reaching targeted audiences and thereby shaping the public opinion. According to Amba Uttra Kak, “These algorithmic choices and business dynamics shape our exposure to opinion and fact, and the range of sources from which we get them. The manipulation of their preferences may not interfere directly with an individual’s options, but, as legal philosopher Joseph Raz (1986: 377) explains, “perverts the way that person reaches decisions, forms preferences, or adopts goals.” This distortion, too, is an “invasion of autonomy.” 

In fact social media played an important role in the victory of Narendra Modi in the elections of 2014 in India. The online army of the current regime played an important role in controlling the narratives. According to Santhosh S

The internet, particularly the social media, which was expected to revitalise the public sphere to bring about a new civic culture, has instead allowed for the selective return of the “written word” in support of fascist ideology. The cyberspace, along with the mass media, has enabled the coming together of many virtual “participants” to hurl masculinist abuse and silence their opponents.

It is here we ask what role has social media come to play in the democratic processes. Has this led to the further polarisation of the world based on different ideologies?  This problem is a complex issue because, on the one hand, we look at the internet as a space of free expression that is being misused and thus we want a regulation; on the other hand, the internet is seen as an equalising space like no other, and thus any kind of censorship or authority that curtails this basic freedom would also be problematic. How do we find a middle ground, and draw these lines and who do we give this power to? To the user, social media conglomerates or to the state?

 

Accountability and Data regulation

The NCRB report of 2020 mentions that,  “[In metropolitan cities alone] a total of 50,035 cases were registered under Cyber Crimes, showing an increase of 11.8% in registration over 2019 (44,735 cases). The crime rate under this category increased from 3.3 in 2019 to 3.7 in 2020. During 2020, 60.2% of cyber-crime cases registered were for the motive of fraud (30,142 out of 50,035 cases) followed by sexual exploitation.” However, as a part of our everyday reality, we see increasing distress among women whose photos are morphed without their consent, people who are unnecessarily bullied on the basis of their caste or religious identity.

Sujatha Subramanian, in her article titled “Is Hindutva Masculinity on Social Media Producing A Culture of Violence against Women and Muslims?” writes: 

The violence against women on social media perpetrated by proponents of Hindutva extends to rape and murder threats, stalking, and non-consensual posting of nude photos. Such gendered and sexualised forms of violence directed at women often result in them closing their social media accounts and choosing to not participate in online spaces (Pandey nd).

The recent case of using pictures of women for a fake auction online has brought people’s attention to the fact that the IT Act of 2000 does not have many provisions to ensure cybersafety and curb cyber-violence that is highly misogynistic and targets very specific groups of people. Most of those accused in the Bulli Bai app case are booked under certain sections of the IPC, however, all such crimes come under the one and only section 67 which mentions punishment in the case of publishing or transmitting obscene material in electronic form. The increasing numbers and forms of cyberviolence points toward a lacuna in firstly our understanding and acknowledgement of a cyber crime and secondly, the right laws and punishments for the same. Cyberviolence is a much complex issue because it begs the question of accountability: is the platform liable at all? Or should the person or using terminology of the Data Protection Act, should the “data fiduciary” be held accountable under all circumstances? Also, with so much data now being shared on online spaces, it becomes pertinent to look into how the data that is being put onto these platforms can be manipulated in different ways and be used by different social actors. We need to see if there exists a structure to this chaos of information. How is this data being regulated and who regulates it? 

In the article titled “Dangerous Speech in Real Time: Social Media, Policing, and Communal Violence,” author Siddhart Narain discusses the relevance of the IT Act in the context of new emerging social media applications. He writes, 

For many years now, law enforcement agencies in India have been asking that internet platforms follow the Indian law, including the provisions of the Information Technology Act, and speech related to criminal law, which has a relatively wide ambit as well as a history of misuse, as the controversy over section 66A and its subsequent striking down has shown. Internet platforms such as Facebook and Google are headquartered in the US, and follow a more liberal standard laid down by American First Amendment law. This has resulted in a friction between successive Indian governments and internet platforms, and often tied the hands of law enforcement agencies when it comes to enforcing Indian law that regulates content on social media. 

 

Section 354 D of IPC, which is considered as one important law with respect to stalking mentions that any man who- “monitors the use by a woman of the internet, email or any other form of electronic communication, commits the offence of stalking”, also provides exceptions that `such conduct shall not amount to stalking if the man who pursued it proves that--

(i) it was pursued for the purpose of preventing or detecting crime and the man accused of stalking had been entrusted with the responsibility of prevention and detection of crime by the State; or

(ii) it was pursued under any law or to comply with any condition or requirement imposed by any person under any law; or

(iii) in the particular circumstances such conduct was reasonable and justified.

These exceptions are vague in the sense that being entrusted with responsibility by the state cannot justify actions that cause deep mental trauma to a woman, child or anyone who is subjected to cyberbullying or any other forms of cyberviolence. Also, this impreciseness in the language used in the law might act as a safety net for the public officials who would then perhaps never be held accountable because their actions can be justified on the basis of responsibility entrusted by the state. Another question is what are these ‘circumstances’ in which such an act can be justified. Exceptions like these are open to interpretation and therefore need to be questioned.

Ambika Sinha, in her 2018 article titled “India's Data Protection Framework Will Need to Treat Privacy as a Social and Not Just an Individual Good,” raises this issue, and asks this question, not just in the context of an incidence of violence but also in the matter of day-to-day data exchange and the liability of stakeholders involved. She writes,  

Privacy policies are more likely to serve as liability disclaimers for companies than any kind of guarantee of privacy for consumers. A case in point is Mark Zuckerberg’s facile claim that there was no “data-breach" in the Cambridge Analytica–Facebook incident. Instead of asking each of the 87 million users whether they wanted their data to be collected and shared further, Facebook designed a platform that required consent in any form only from 270,000 users. Not only were users denied the opportunity to give consent, their consent was assumed through a feature which was on by default. This is representative of how privacy trade-offs are conceived by current data-driven business models. Participation in a digital ecosystem is by itself deemed as users’ consent to relinquish control over how their data is collected, who may have access to it, and what purposes it may be used for. 

 

Hate Speech, Polarisation and Cyberharassment

In the article “India Needs a Fresh Strategy to Tackle Online Extreme Speech,” Sahana Udapa writes, 

While global concerns over fake news and disinformation have found resonance in the world’s second largest online sphere (with 450 million internet users), social media exchange in India should also be understood in relation to longer cultures of political exchange and structures of privilege that define who gets to spread disinformation or abuse fellow users, and with what consequences. Far from dismissing rugged exchanges on online media as political mud-slinging common to India’s fissured democratic landscape, it would serve well to approach abuse and disinformation as an important culture of mediatised politics in the digital age, which not only reflects extant political differences but significantly shapes what it means to participate in public life for a net fed generation.

Udupa’s article discusses the potential of social media as a space for formulation of political discourse and public reason. Social media is not just a platform that creates opportunities for novel political discourse, but it also has the power of transference of misinformation from the virtual to the “real” world. While social media can create a space for those voices that are otherwise suppressed, it can also give the power of anonymity which can be a boon as well as a bain. It is often seen that the space of social media becomes a mediator just like a game of chinese whispers, where one message gets construed into a very different one, with the increase in exchange. 

The other side to the violence on social media, takes place when certain groups of people use the digital space to polarise certain issues and misuse social media for propaganda purposes. In a manner that marginalises certain groups of people in the same way as it does in the real world. For example, the circulation of online videos like that of Afrazul is mirroring the politics of communal hatred online. The vulnerabilities, anxieties and hatred being projected on online platforms need to be looked at with complexity and criticality. It is thus important to understand that social media entering into the lives of Indian citizens inadvertently brings with itself the history of structures of privilege that define who gets to abuse who, and who shall be liable for certain actions against the rest.

Maaz Bin Bilal, in his EPW article titled “The Afrazul Killing Video as a Perfect Anti-Muslim Crime,” writes looks at the intensity of this matter through the case of the video showing the murder of  Mohammad Afrazul by Shambhunath Raigar in 2017. He writes, 

The video with the killing of Afrazul by Raigar in cold blood, without any immediate motivation or excuse is a watershed moment in the face of this new-age social-media-driven communal crime in India. Where all such hate crime shared on social media, especially the sporadic but geographically widespread lynching, is to build an ever-present sense of fear for the Muslim, this video does so in a far more generalised manner.

It has also been seen that there is an emerging culture of othering that is emerging through targeting and trolling certain groups of people on social media. Ghazala Jamil writes, 

In either case, designing apps (using GitHub, a specialised software development service and a social networking platform for developers) for online sexual abuse and humiliation is elaborate and deliberate violence perpetrated by these actors. It is way more than annoying, disruptive trolling. The level of effort, expertise, and resources that must have gone into the crafting of this humiliation is not only intended to have a chilling effect but also meant to terrorise.

These issues beg the questions of where we draw the line between the actual and virtual, and how social media gives us hope to reform traditional political discourse, and yet at many levels merely replicates it. We need to reflect on bridging the extremes between free rein of social media and surveillance. The problem surfaces when belligerent confrontation gets polarised and the always already marginalised other gets further ambushed. Thus, it’s important to pick on the symptoms of our time and reflect on the power of social media and how cleverly certain stakeholders of social media are puppeting public reason in our times.  

Read More: 

Cyberwarfare Will Threaten Two Things We Hold Dear—Freedom and the Internet | Subi Chaturvedi 12 May, 2018.

Cybersecurity Regulatory Landscape in India: Digitisation on the Hook? | Balraj K Sidhu and Arunender Singhh 17 Sep, 2021

The Afrazul Killing Video as a Perfect Anti-Muslim Crime | Maaz Bin Bilal 16 Dec, 2017

India's Contentious Crime Statistics | Economic and Political Weekly 16 Nov, 2019

Architecture of Surveillance | SAHRDC, 04 Jan, 2014

Cambridge Analytica and the Political Economy of Persuasion  | Amba Uttara Kak, 26 May, 2018

Digital Activism and Cultural Resistance Mapping the Online Kashmir | Onaiza Drabu, 08 Aug, 2020

How did Social Media Impact India's 2019 General Election? | Anuradha Rao, 28 Dec, 201
Questions on the Technologies of Fascism Making the ‘Modi Effect’ | Santhosh S, 16, Jan, 2016

Rethinking the Democratic Dilemma | Navneeth MS, 29 May, 2021