Ranjona Banerji: End of Innocence on Social Media

01 Nov,2019

By Ranjona Banerji

 

On Thursday, The Indian Express broke its story that Indian human rights activists, lawyers and journalists were being spied on, via Whatsapp, using Israeli spyware, Pegasus. This was confirmed by Whatsapp, (owned by Facebook). Whatsapp has filed a case against the Israeli-owned NSO Group and Q Cyber Technologies, which make surveillance software for government and military use, in a US federal court.

As it turns out, from what has emerged so far, most of the people spied on were those working on the Bhima Koregaon case, for the Dalits who were attacked by upper castes for commemorating a historic battle. The question which should be centre-stage and is hidden between the lines is: who did the snooping.

Obviously, either the Government of India or someone within. This reiterates the feeling that this current government is against its own citizens in order to further its Hindutva agenda. Does that sound harsh? Who would use military-grade spyware to infiltrate the Whatsapp accounts of human rights activists and lawyers involved in a case which has riled the Hindutva brigade because big names in the larger Sangh Parivar have been accused?

WhatsApp confirms: Israeli spyware was used to snoop on Indian journalists, activists

Surveillance via WhatsApp: On snoop target list—Rights lawyers to activists, DU prof to Defence journalist

In a neat act of disingenuousness, the government of India has asked Whatsapp what’s going on. The temerity of this is astounding. NSO confirms that it only sells it software to governments. Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad’s absurd defence was that the Congress has no business to ask questions because in the last UPA government there were allegations that one Cabinet minister spied on another.

This piece from The Telegraph, Kolkata, lays out the danger of the surveillance itself and the government reaction:

https://www.telegraphindia.com/india/government-leaves-spyware-key-question-open/cid/1715953?ref=top-stories_home-template

But the problem remains is that most of the media will buy into or spread the government’s “defence”. Then they make it worse by digging into the past for anything similar, anything that will get the Narendra Modi government and the BJP off the hook. The most common defence used by the media is: If x government breaks protocol or laws, one cannot question them because a,b,c,d governments had done something similar in the past. The number of “neutral” journalists and columnists do this is no longer astonishing and highly unprofessional; it is now dangerous to democracy. Look around you. You know who they are and they know who they are.

The facts of this Whatsapp surveillance story are clear: there are no denials. It also shows how vulnerable we are, how digital platforms are being encouraged without adequate thought to individual security or rights. We already know that the government is unhappy about upholding internet privacy: we are on a fragile balance now thanks mainly to the courts and internet privacy activists. Whatsapp feels that many more people have been targeted.

However, Whatsapp’s owner Facebook is apparently happy to accept political advertising money even when it knows that the advertisements knowingly and wilfully disseminate lies, abuse, disinformation. This is after the huge investigation into how Cambridge Analytica used Facebook to make sure Donald Trump won and Brexit went through: spreading carefully targeted manipulative lies.

Twitter may have declared that it will not accept political advertising but as we have seen in India, and currently in the case of popular Twitter user and senior Supreme Court Sanjay Hegde (@sanjayuvacha), frivolous complaints from BJP and/or Hindutva forces can get one suspended. Many of us who use Twitter and criticise the current government have recently found ourselves “temporarily restricted” by Twitter with no reason given.

How much this Modi government and its supporters can get away with is open to question. So far, there appears to be no limit. At the end, and there will be an end, media culpability will be recorded and remembered.

Meanwhile, enjoy your time on social media in the innocence that your innocence is not being interfered with.

 

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist and commentator. She is also Consulting Editor, MxMIndia. Her views here are personal

 

 

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