Misinformation, slander and abuse: Social media is rife with all these things and it takes very little to find oneself in the line of fire. Online platforms function without little government and policy regulation and exercising one’s Freedom of Expression, seems dependent on encroaching the rights of someone else. IT veteran Mohandas Pai and academician Dr Richard Rego, debate the issue
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey found himself in the hot seat on September 5, alongside Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, as they faced a Congressional hearing. The allegations are that social media platforms come with their own ideological bias, along with filters and algorithms that only aid one side of the conversation: The ‘liberal’ left. Dorsey admits that the site is run by human beings, not robots and that users should allow a certain margin of error or cognitive bias. He went on to say, in an interview with recode, "I mean, we have a lot of conservative-leaning folks in the company as well, and to be honest, they don't feel safe to express their opinions at the company. They do feel silenced by just the general swirl of what they perceive to be the broader percentage of leanings within the company and I don't think that's fair or right." I would like to remark, at the outset, that the left-liberal is a paradox. The true left has no room for dissent, opposition or the expression of the individual view over that of the collective. A liberal, on the other hand, is one who not only expresses his or her views, but will defend, to whatever extent possible, the right of others to voice their opinions. Many of the nation's teeming, self-proclaimed 'liberals' fall away here, right at the start as they are part of the left and claim to be liberal.
Despite the candour of Jack Dorsey's admissions, made during the Congressional hearings and through a number of interviews, most of which are available for public consumption, Democrats continue to rally against the claims, which they say are a Republican tool to create discord. It is the nature of society today: Concerns that arise from the non-left liberal (we use the word 'liberal' loosely) and right-leaning camps, are decried as parochial, or often, conspiracy theories. What this means is that they have no room even for reasonable debate. They are even being shut out of University talks, from the Temples of Free Dissent! Social media appeared to give us an opportunity straight from the heavens: A free, fair platform for discussion, for everybody, for the democracy to come together and shape itself. However, the ideal of extensive and varied debate has regressed into a massive fight, with hair-pulling and name-calling, all in the relative anonymity of social media platforms. Social media has given us a great new means for discussion but instead of informed debate, online platforms give aggressors and provocateurs, cyber bullies and cyber naxals, a convenient veil behind which to hide. There is a dominant narrative, too and the idea of free speech exists without question as long as it is in endorsement of these views.
Last week, I shared a ranking on my own Twitter feed; I have a verified account with some 4,21,000 followers. The picture, sourced from 'BBC NewsHub' an imitation site, presented a ranking of the most corrupt political parties of all time, placing an Indian political party in fourth position. I was met with a swarm of criticism, with left liberal naysayers, cyber bullies and cyber naxals, snapping at my feet and sounding the alarm: Fake News! Fake News! My response, that this was a mere ranking, from a parody/imitation site, but something I happened to find shocking, fell on deaf ears. More 'moderate' liberals argued that a retweet or perceived endorsement from me carries a certain weight. Now let me make this clear: If we were to report a death that has not happened, it is fake news.
Rankings, on the other hand, are all over Twitter: all users will attest to the fact that anybody can do them. It is upto individuals to judge them, but is certainly not any fake news. Second, it has not escaped my attention that the exposure of NewsHub as an imitation news website, came into focus when an Indian political party was presented in a poor light. In 2017, a similar ranking did the rounds, this time with a leader from another political party replacing this one as the fourth most corrupt of all time. The ranking was shared liberally, so to speak, across social media websites. Agressors found this was in agreement with their own views, so fake news was less of a priority.
The phenomenon is an interesting one and having dealt with a fair bit of online bullying, patterns have begun to emerge. The loudest voices are those of left-leaning, so-called liberals from Delhi who have a pathological, barely-disguised love for the ancien regime. Perhaps one must set aside some room for the loony fringe, which exists everywhere, across every ideology. But what sets Twitter apart is that some figures from the media, voices whose opinions reportedly make a difference in public leaning, don't even attempt to hide their biases anymore and have become abusive and bullying. My Twitter account is often filled with abuse and derogatory remarks - of course, I'm not the sort to be bullied. I give it back sometimes to the cyber bullies because a cyber bully has to be fought back, but when the abuse by unknown trolls becomes out of hand, I block them. Now, I have also taken to showing up such abusive trolls, the community of Cyber Naxals, I call them.
The process of verification, which can be discerned with some research shows leftists, handles from JNU all receiving the much-desired 'blue tick', even if they have few followers. Others of a different persuasion with much larger followings are left out. Simply because the people who make these distinctions are bound by their own ideology. Jack Dorsey went on record admitting this. This is where the trouble starts for the rest of us. Those of us, myself included, who dare to depart from the mainstream polemic, meet trolls, who slander, call you names and question your sanity. No matter how well-founded we believe our views or reasoning to be, there is no room for it here; overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the persecutors' voices, we are bullied and intimidated either into submission or silence. My own retaliations to my adversaries were met with: Don't you believe in Freedom of Expression, or as Twitter would have it, FoE? I stand by the fact that I have the right to express my views freely. Those who follow me or give credence to my remarks, do so as a personal choice. They are neither forced to stay nor leave, endorse my views or rubbish them. Criticism is fine, as long as it concerns the issue at hand. Unfortunately, opposition today means hordes of trolls ganging up against a single person, abuse and name-calling are now run-of-the-mill events led by some ‘journalists’ and ‘TV Anchors” who act like vigilantes for their own purpose. Those who step away from the left narrative have become accustomed to names like 'bigot', 'communal', 'Sanghi' and of course, 'Hindutva'.
Then there's the hypocrisy: Twitter overflows with it and those of us who see it either take it in our stride or accept the thankless task of pointing it out, only to receive personal abuse in return. Outrage is thunderous, no doubt, but highly selective. On Twitter, everything is reduced to a single baseline: communalism. Developments are seen only through a very selective parochial lens and there is no room for logic that seeks to establish itself outside of this. Why didn't the keepers and self-declared vigilantes of our ‘morality’ set Twitter on fire demanding justice for the nun who was raped in Kerala or condemn the Bishop who allegedly raped her? The same set of cyber naxals led the charge when Hindu Swami’s were charged with alleged raped but a deafening silence when other community members are accused of the same. Where are the principles these supposedly claim to follow? Society has descended to its most savage, aided by the illusion of freedom on social media. This apparent egalitarianism, where a troll and an expert find themselves on a more or less level playing field, has blurred the difference between fact and opinion, criticism and vitriol. And members of traditional media have joined this gang. The words of Senator Richard Burr, who made the opening address at the hearing on September 5, resonate a great deal: "If the key is regulation, let's talk about that. If it lies in more resources and legislations around information-sharing, we can discuss that too. Let's get it out there. Whatever it is, we have to do it collaboratively and we have to do it now."
The writer Mohandas Pai is founder, Aarin Capital.
‘Ignorance is no excuse, fake news is driven by political agenda’
This last week brought with it the best of times and the worst of times. On September 16, the Twitterati took on the founding member of an IT behemoth, teaching him a proverbial cyber lesson. Why? For the alleged perpetration of fake news. Discerning the factual from the opinionated, the real from the fake is the challenge of social media and of the age. If the social side of online media could expose the former director of an IT giant, and script his sweaty week, should we blame social media? Don't blame scientists for devising bombs; bomb-users need some gray matter of their own. The things that separate human beings from other creatures are not raw passion and drives, but the ability to reflect critically and verify information. Had the man verified the information about 'one of the 10 most corrupt political parties of India' using online tools!
For everybody else, it is the best of times: businesses, media houses, individuals who toe the line are having a good time. Many of them have harnessed social media to serve their own agendas - to spread good news about themselves and bad news about their rivals. There is enough negativity to go around but that doesn't mean we should take the situation for granted. In the name of democratisation of online platforms, business-driven social media houses have popularised the post-truth narrative, to a point where we feel our lives are governed entirely by it. What does that result in? The indiscriminate spread of fake news and misinformation, of which everybody has been guilty at one time or another. There are those who spend their time creating it and equally maleficent are the many users in invest in spreading it across social media.
Consumers of fake information are made to eat humble pie by imposter sites and accounts, which clone well-known sources. That is where we are - BBC News—Hub, a parody site. For the well-versed, BBC is a benchmark in credibility (despite their goof-ups). When clones bombard online platforms with misinformation, like our very own Postcard News, us with our pants down. Mr Mohandas Pai is not the first big name to fall prey to fake news, which abounds online. Other biggies like Power Minister Piyush Goel, HRD Minister Prakash Javadekar, Kiren Rijiju, MP Rajeev Chandra—sekhar, Paresh Rawal, Sanjay Dixit (IAS) a number of ministers in the Modi government and leaders from rival camps.
Even worse are loud-mouth journalists. Why do we mortals accept the views of these journalists as absolute and mistake their authoritativeness for authenticity and credibilit? Alas, we often confuse volume for truth. If Pai blames the BBC for not disowning the imposter to justify his own blunder, why didn't he tweet the "news" from the same website in November 2017, which claimed Mr Modi was 'one of the top 10 most corrupt Prime Ministers in the world?' Neither innocence nor ignorance lie behind fake news. It is a certain agenda. The average person should be able to make an educated guess about the quality and authenticity of an information source. The quality of logic, language, grammar and stylistic nuances should help us distinguish between the fake and the authentic. Of course, this applies to the average reader, not to the blind-by-choice and the lazy, who take pride in their ignorance.
The online media has the potential to both lead and mislead. The way ahead for us, if we hope to deal with its fickle nature, is to accept our limitations and agenda-driven lives, to not be blinded by raw passion and crude arrogance. For an educated person, just as there are traps that lead us to fall prey to fake news, there are also tools to verify the authenticity of information. If we are open to using these online facilities, including Alt—News, BoomLive and Hoax-Slayer, the online ecosystem could be a blessing for a democracy in crisis.
(The author Dr Richard Rego is an Associate Professor of Mass Communication in the Department of Communication, St Joseph's College Autonomous, Bengaluru)...