Free Discourse in the Age of National Threats

15 Feb,2021

 

By Shashidhar Nanjundaiah

 

Shashidhar NanjundaiahThe Twitter-Indian government war is gaining unprecedented but expected proportions. After BJP IT Cell head Amit Malviya’s tweet on the farmers’ protest was called out in early December by Twitter as “manipulative media”—its first ever time to do so for all the claims about Malviya as a repeat offender, the micro-blogging company now finds itself in trouble with the BJP government.

If we must redefine our freedoms, and social media has defined it in its own way, there will be conflict. For the moment, this is a conflict of survival. And Koo comes as a great alternative.

For the longest time, I have been uneasy with the term “social media”. Can we call it media, I would brood and ask myself. The reasons for my doubt were founded in the definitions we learnt about media. Of course, we have parsed and we have intellectualised it in technology terms—“the plural of medium” is the most common—to its description as “a marketplace of ideas” and most recently, as the non-common carrier of information and insight. For the longest time, the media had been regarded as innocent common carriers of information, much like the telephone.

Not any longer. Editorial intervention in news still lends it the diversity of voices we have grown to expect it—at least it does so in theory. What Twitter and Facebook did not foresee, however, was that they, too, would be measured with the same yardstick. Surprised, young content moderators are now editors who must determine whether the liberation of expression they had envisioned for their users was too much.

The less glamorous news item last week was that an Editors Guild of India webinar was cyber-bombed by a number of people who thought the topic—reporting from Naxal areas—was not convenient. Public webinars on platforms such as Zoom always held the technological peril of potentially being hijacked by disruptors. With social media, though, the disruption is a part of the very soul of the technology.

But as diverse its voices are in principle, organisation remains the very soul of social media, along with its partner-function, transaction. Just as advertisers will take advantage of the big numbers—the soul of the economy of social media—so will organisers seeking to mobilise. If we trust individual minds to determine for themselves what their story should be, there are plenty of opportunities—free of charge—to affiliate with or endorse organised campaigns.

So while technology has changed, not much has changed in the principle of organised campaigns. Whether it was India’s independence movement or Jayaprakash Narayan, galvanising likeminded people to voice their opinion has been central to change. Social media does beat geography in the mobilisation. Still, like Arab Spring, the real movement is on the ground for any real change to happen.

That is why, whatever mobilisation of the farmers’ protest may have happened through hashtags, on-ground presence was always going to be critical. The Nishaan Sahib flag (not the Khalistan flag—that, indeed, is fake news that should have been shut down by the government) that fluttered atop India’s best symbol of our freedoms, the Red Fort, is far more emblematic than any hashtag. So while a crackdown on Twitter is underway, a person climbed a Red Fort flagpole at ease on Republic Day, and hoisted a Sikh flag. Police personnel, very much around the place, watched. How difficult was it for the police to prevent a single man from climbing on a flagpole? Questions are being raised whether actors and non-farmers joined the protest. Later, Delhi Police dug trenches and set up barbed fences on roads leading to the capital, and armed themselves with steel batons. It was given much media publicity, as though it were a larger warning. So on one hand, farmers physically violated norms in the capital and the police admitted them on routes that were not permitted.

On the other, there were online voices that were protesting. While online mobilisation and endorsement was rife—some even calling Prime Minister Modi a potential perpetrator of genocide—this was no longer about the three contentious farm laws. Can such a movement, even considering “Khalistanis” are supporting it, be a threat to the government? Or would the government be better off acting confident of quelling such an attempt? Shouting angrily at Twitter and acting spooked at self-perceived “threats to security” are laughable, puerile actions.

It all seemed topsy-turvy: the virtual was real, and the real, virtual. Twitter is defending free speech, and a democratic government is shutting it down.

That is why the homegrown Twitter clone, Koo, comes as a big relief for the government and its political party. Tech-savvy and quick to turn opportunities into advantages, the government has claimed the Koo space to mobilise and co-opt it as a nationalistic platform. For “free discourse,” of course.

When the US Democrats found that they did not have a strong enough point to claim that Trump instigated violence on the Capitol on January 6, they said simply that he was “responsible”. After Trump was acquitted this week after impeachment proceedings, even Republican leader Mitch McConnell joined the chorus to state that Trump did not do enough to stop the violence. It is reminiscent of what IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad and others in his government are doing: They are accusing Twitter of not doing enough. Maybe that is fair.

But to claim that Twitter must editorialise to suit the government, weeding out inconvenient voices while the government’s own party routinely uses Twitter to spread fake news, is not fair. One is false narrative, the other is fake news. A media-literate government must understand that while we still don’t have laws to protect us from fake news, false narrative is not something you can censor. People at large and political parties and leaders are using instigating language on social media because it sells. Going after Twitter is tantamount to killing the messenger.

 

As the founder of BeingResponsible, the author is attempting to build media awareness among school- and college-goers via Responsible Media Literacy. Prof Nanjundaiah has led media institutes to positions of repute and leadership. He is also an editor. You can reach him at shashi.nanjundaiah@hotmail.com. His views here are personal.

 

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