Social media

Everybody’s soapbox

Print edition : May 25, 2018

At a bus shelter in Visakhapatnam, a file photograph. According to one estimate, there were 281.81 million mobile phone Internet users in India in 2016; by 2022 this number is expected to grow to 492.68 million. Photo: K.R. DEEPAK

The police stop a group of youths who tried to close down shops at the Saphalyam complex in Thiruvananthapuram on April 16 while protesting against the rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl in Kathua near Jammu. The hartal was organised using social media. Photo: S. MAHINSHA

At the Marina beach in Chennai on January 18, 2017, protesting against the ban on jallikattu. Social media has played a positive role in the fight for justice and democracy in a variety of contexts. Photo: G. SRIBHARATH

On the potential and perils of social media.

THE widespread violence and attempts to rouse communal passions in Kerala recently, in the context of the rape and murder of a minor girl in Kathua in Jammu and Kashmir and the horrifying circumstances surrounding it, must be the latest instance in India of the grave consequences of motivated messages being spread through social media platforms and apps.

The call for a hartal on April 16, made initially by a handful of youths in WhatsApp groups making use of the general feeling of unease and distress over the Kathua incident, led to organised crowds in several districts in Kerala trying to force people to take part in the protest; raising divisive slogans; attacking vehicles, shops and the police; and disrupting normal life. No organisation or leader claimed responsibility for the protest call, but the messages, some quite incendiary, were replicated subsequently in a concerted fashion through a variety of WhatsApp groups. It was clearly an unprecedented effort to communalise and try and “weaponise” a tragic event that had already evoked indignation and instant condemnation from all sections of society in the State.

The police arrested over 700 people, mostly in eight northern districts and belonging mainly to the Social Democratic Party of India, the Welfare Party of India and the Muslim League, for the street violence and attacks. Many went into hiding. The police also arrested five youths in two southern districts, administrators of the WhatsApp groups through which the early calls went out to clones in all 14 districts of the State. One of them was allegedly a “disgruntled RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] worker” who had left the organisation a few months earlier; three others reportedly had a history of being associated with local Hindutva organisations.

Preliminary reports said the youth who first raised the call for protest and whose Facebook posts already had quite a following found his protest cry gaining a pace of its own on social media and being taken up by closed WhatsApp groups of some fundamentalist organisations whose supporters then took to the streets in a very organised manner. There were even voice messages asking people to gather at specific locations or saying that early protests were meek and needed to be strengthened so as to “make an impact” all over Kerala. The whole truth of that unusual and disturbing online mobilisation leading to widespread violence will be known only after the police complete their investigation.

Religious, communal and political propaganda and disinformation campaigns have been spreading wildly in India through social media and closed messaging groups in the past few years, but their implications have not come into much focus. Some have led to shocking events, such as the riots in Muzaffarnagar and the lynching in Dadri, both in Uttar Pradesh; the communal clashes in Basirhat, West Bengal; the mob violence and killings in Jharkhand; and the exodus of people from north-eastern India, including migrant labourers, from several Indian cities. Equally sinister has been the seemingly innocuous “fake news” that spreads on an everyday basis on a range of issues throughout the country.

Social media mischief began to be acutely felt in India from about a year before the general election campaign of 2014, which brought the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to power at the Centre. It was a key juncture that saw an astonishing increase in organised online propaganda, misinformation campaigns, insulting or abusive social media posts, videos and articles meant to embarrass opponents, and memes and trolls taking over the public sphere in the world’s largest democracy. The BJP’s unseen online army of Hindutva warriors was at the forefront of it all and had been encouraging clones of equally mischievous cyber warriors (though much less productive) in several other parties and organisations.

Ubiquitous WhatsApp

Facebook, Twitter, Google and YouTube are well-known and fertile platforms in this respect, but the most potent has been the Facebook-owned WhatsApp; being a near-ubiquitous feature in a majority of India’s nearly 300 million smartphones, this encrypted messaging app has in a very short time acquired a grass-roots level spread.

According to one estimate, with over 460 million Internet users, India is the second largest online market, ranked only behind China. There were 281.81 million mobile phone Internet users in India in 2016; by 2022 this number is expected to grow to 492.68 million. The number of social media network users in 2019 is expected to be 258.27 million, up from 168.1 million in 2016. By 2021, there will be about 635.8 million Internet users in India.

As in other parts of the world, in India the Internet revolution was ushered in with high hopes, and it has brought undeniable rewards. It has made communication cheap and has generally improved life, connecting more and more people and offering them opportunities to access information from around the world regardless of income or background. It has helped them access the benefits of development from anywhere. It has heightened political awareness and increased democratic participation.

In all such respects, it is in sync with the ideals of a democratic society. But its channels have been shown to be largely open also to misuse and manipulation. Even people who were once euphoric about the freedom from government controls and lack of national boundaries that the proliferation of this new technology offered are now truly worried.

Worrisome trend

Is technology making politics better? Are people being better informed or more engaged? A lot of what spreads through these platforms is a variety of disinformation and a litany of grievances. What does such “information pollution” do to a democratic, plural, diverse, multilingual and multireligious society? What will be a nation and its democratic political system be like without the anchor of truth and facts?

In 1996, John Perry Barlow, a champion of free speech and an early digital rights activist, wrote “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”, in which he calls upon governments of the world to leave cyberspace free of the chains that they sought to impose. However, within a decade of writing about the hopes of an emergent digital era, he, when asked to re-examine his manifesto and assess where he was right and wrong, said: “My belief in the virtues of giving all humanity a voice did not take into account what would happen if you gave every one of a billion people his own virtual soapbox and street corner. Everybody’s talking and nobody’s listening. It’s like poetry. Far more write it than read it.”

In an interview published in 2006 in California, a magazine from the University of California, Berkeley, he said, even when he was right in his vision, some of the consequences turned out to be less utopian than he might have wished. There were, in addition, areas where he was “simply wrong”. When he wrote the declaration, he was convinced that giving everyone a voice would change the balance of political power. “But, meanwhile, back in the physical world, which is still armed and dangerous, things continue their own ugly course.... My point is that there are many unforeseen consequences of Internet ubiquity that I would alter if I could. There are many human rights that hubbub alone can’t ensure. But just as laws are hard to enforce in cyberspace, so are rights,” he said.

Instead of building a decentralised, transparent, credible and more democratic society, as many had hoped it would, technology has become an instrument for concealing truth, hardening attitudes, breeding arrogance and sowing hatred in societies. A key reason for this, as perhaps Barlow was suggesting, is that while technology allows information to be organised and spread ever so cheaply, it remains helpless in changing human nature into something consistently more decent and pleasant. There are other reasons as well.

In a perceptive article published in The Guardian in December 2015, the Internet activist Hossein Derakhshan, well known for starting the “blogging revolution” in Iran and being arrested for his online activities, talks of the dramatic changes that happened in the online world in the six years he was locked up in prison. In 2008, when he was arrested, he recalls, smartphones were still mostly used to make phone calls and send short messages, handle emails and surf the web; the iPhone was barely a year old; and there were no real apps, no Instagram, no SnapChat and no WhatsApp. However, for bloggers like him who were still “rock stars”, the “hyperlink” was their currency. His blogs had an audience of 20,000 people or so every day, and “people used to carefully read his posts and leave lots of relevant comments”.

Stripped of power

But when he was released, to his surprise, he found that blogs had gone out of fashion, and instead, he was told how essential social networks had become. But when he tried to post a link to one of his stories on Facebook, he found that he got just three “likes”, and that was all. He found that in those six years (“a long time to be in jail, but an entire era online”), the Internet was literally stripped of its power to change the world because the “hyperlink”—“that empowering device that once represented the open, interconnected spirit of the worldwide web”—had been devalued and made obsolete.

“Hyperlinks aren’t just the skeleton of the web: they are its eyes, a path to its soul. And a blind web page, one without hyperlinks, can’t look or gaze at another webpage—and this has serious consequences for the dynamics of power on the web,” he said. He found that the web pages outside social media began to die because they began to lose that “empowering gaze” without which they were “both dead and blind, and therefore incapable of transferring power to any outside web page”.

He also talks about what became a threat to the hyperlink and generally replaced it: it was the philosophy of “the stream”, which combines “two of the most dominant, and most overrated, values of our times—‘newness’ and ‘popularity’—and which now governs the way people receive information on the Web”. It has resulted in a situation where fewer users directly depend on dedicated web pages but instead rely on “steady streams of information” that are curated for them from various sources by complex and secretive algorithms that power the newsfeeds of social media giants such as Facebook and Google.

He makes the interesting observation that he found nearly every social media platform was refusing to give “hyperlinks” any special status except when they offered a photograph or a piece of text. One is encouraged to post one single hyperlink and expose it to a “quasi-democratic process of liking, plussing and hearting”. But “links” represent a “connection” between objects; they are not objects themselves, such as a photograph or piece of text. But this “objectivisation” truly stripped hyperlinks of their immense powers to connect a user far and deep into the wealth of information that once made him explore a variety of sources and opinions. Therefore, “lots of people began to start their daily online routine in these cul-de-sacs of social media, and their journeys ended there”.

Filter bubble

Derakhshan was not the first to notice this trend; there were others, while he was in jail, who were warning the world about this unhealthy drift of the Internet. By 2011, the pioneering online organiser and activist Eli Pariser had coined the term “filter bubble”. In a TED talk in the same year, before a packed audience, he warned that unlike the original vision of the Internet being a place that would connect all people together and hence would be great for democracy and society, there was this invisible shift in how information was flowing online, as a whole host of companies such as Facebook, Google and Netflix began introducing personalised feeds in various ways, tailoring their information services (“according to relevance”) to suit each person’s particular tastes.

“This moves us very quickly towards a world in which the Internet is showing us what it thinks we want to see but not necessarily what we need to see…. I do think this is a problem. And I think, if you take all of these filters together, you take all these algorithms, you get what I call a ‘filter bubble’. And your filter bubble is your own personal, unique universe of information that you live in online. And what is in your filter bubble depends on who you are, and it depends on what you do. But the thing is that you don’t decide what gets in. And more importantly, you don’t see what gets edited out.”

This prescient warning about how personalised search was narrowing people’s world views and about people getting trapped in their filter bubbles is relevant today in India, perhaps more than it was seven years ago. Pariser also talked about another serious concern. In the pre-Internet era, the flow of information was controlled by the traditional media gatekeepers, the editors, who were bound by their own journalistic ethics and by laws that compelled them to be responsible to society. But algorithms that increasingly curated the world for people had no such restraints. It was important that “they were not just keyed to relevance” but also showed people “things that are uncomfortable or challenging or important”, and had encoded in them “a sense of public life, a sense of civic responsibility”.

Addressing technology leaders of several social media platforms who were among the audience, he said: “I think we really need the Internet to be that thing that we all dreamed of it being. We need it to connect us all together. We need it to introduce us to new ideas and new people and new perspectives. And it is not going to do that if it leaves us all isolated in a Web of one,” he said.

However, more than the hopes about a wonderful new world, it was the fears about what could go wrong with it that began to come true, as subsequent events have proved everywhere.

Today, social media platforms are India’s new public spaces where people gather, where its complex politics is played out, where its campaigns take place, where issues are constantly put to vote, where Ministers announce policy and where companies gather data on customers for more effective advertising. It is also the place where an increasing number of ordinary Indians from all walks of life come to read or hear or watch their only source of news, exchange notes and make their decisions, including, importantly, whom to vote for or when to hit the streets in applause or protest.

In the pre-Internet era, publishing was a costly business, and those who indulged in it had to follow journalistic standards of objectivity and balance, had a commitment to facts and truth and had to give space for all viewpoints. Most publishers stuck to it, and they were bound by laws and were monitored by independent regulators.

Social media has no such restraints. It is a free-for-all world, where anyone can publish anything, accuracy and integrity are not sacred, the other side is never heard, and partisanship, pack mentality and mobocracy triumph. As it poses a direct challenge to the time-tested business models of traditional media sources, trust in the old media has slipped. Indeed, many media houses have began to turn their backs on quality, public interest journalism and run after the social media trend of news that is exciting or sensational and generates the largest number of clicks, likes and shares. As more and more of such stuff begins to be distributed through news feeds into millions of mobile phones, the distinction between stories from credible sources and others has begun to blur.

No trust in news media

“If we want to understand the global debate around misinformation, we have to accept that it is playing out in the context of low trust in news media, general scepticism of [news] publishers and [social media] platforms alike, and in an environment where people do not make a clear-cut distinction between ‘real news’, fake news and other forms of misinformation, but rather see the difference as one of degree,” say Richard Fletcher and Rasmus Kleis Nielson of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, University of Oxford, in a recent research paper titled “People Don’t Trust News Media – and This is Key to the Global Misinformation Debate”. From their research on how people see news, media and journalism across the world, the authors say that there are significant differences from country to country but also clear common patterns. “Crudely put, people often have little trust in the news media, they are sceptical of the information they come across on [social media] platforms, and they see poor journalism, political propaganda, and misleading forms of advertising and click-bait as contributing to the problem,” the authors say.

There is a whole body of other research on why disinformation and falsehoods carry away all the likes and the shares, leaving credible information to struggle and chase audiences. For instance, it is now known that “false stories” travel “faster and farther” than true ones in social media because they are “more novel” and people tend to share “novel” information that generates “strong negative reactions”. Moreover, people find information to be more persuasive and prefer sharing it if it confirms their pre-existing attitudes or beliefs. They are also unlikely to question the credibility of any such information if it aligns with their preconceptions.

Echo chambers

The proliferation of cheaper and easier to use instant messaging apps in India has tremendously increased the power and potential of the so-called echo chambers—the typical situation, for instance, in insular WhatsApp groups where one’s own beliefs are reinforced and amplified by kindred information from like-minded members and never challenged by contrary information or debates.

Elio Martino, a provisional psychologist, writer and podcaster, points out that when ideas are left to fester like this, instead of debated openly, it creates the ideal condition for people to seize upon the “most toxic interpretations” of those ideas. He wrote recently in Quillette, an online academic journal: “Since the idea itself is not being disputed in real debate, a simplistic and disfigured version of that idea is allowed to develop, stripped of important context.”

A report examining information disorder and its related challenges brought out by the Council of Europe says that the most “successful” of problematic content is that which plays on people’s emotions, encouraging feelings of superiority, anger or fear. “That is because these factors drive resharing among people who want to connect with their online communities and ‘tribes’. When most social platforms are engineered for people to publicly ‘perform’ through likes, comments and shares, it is easy to understand why emotional content travels so quickly and widely, even as we see an explosion in fact-checking and debunking organisations.” And this is exactly how, in such echo chambers, with the spread of cheap mobile Internet, thousands of ordinary people in India are engaging more deeply in politics and social issues. One often finds that WhatsApp debates are almost always angrier, more aggressive and more emotive, making their resolution more difficult.

What passes back and forth within the fortified walls of WhatsApp and social media niches, therefore, has become a matter of serious concern. Because the agents who create disinformation understand that when people consume and share their messages they will be doing so increasingly from inside such echo chambers, where they will gradually settle down, without them ever being exposed to a reality challenge. In all such platforms, therefore, “the power of truth to intervene in conflicts and solve society’s problems” will be seriously compromised. Instead, wherever campaigns designed specifically to create mistrust and confusion and widen existing divisions are at play, the potential for mischief will be amplified.

A brazen disregard for facts has become the most vicious element of the social media environment in several countries today. It defines more or less truly the politically and communally charged digital media ecosystem that typifies the Indian context, with encrypted messaging services such as WhatsApp playing an important role. There are reports that in many countries of the developing world social media is causing a spate of violence by promoting “posts that gain the maximum mileage by triggering anger or fear” and allowing “emotionally charged rumours to spread wildly”. A recent report in The New York Times about it had the telling title: “Where Countries are Tinderboxes and Facebook is a Match”.

Many of the struggles that we see around us today all involve “the diminishing status of truth”, Katherine Viner, Editor-in-Chief of The Guardian says in an informative essay titled “How technology disrupted the truth”. “This does not mean there are no truths. It simply means… that we cannot agree on what those truths are, and when there is no consensus about the truth and no way to achieve it, chaos soon follows,” she says in the essay, written in the context of the controversial Brexit vote, in which “fantasy and emotions triumphed over facts”, and Britain chose to leave the European Union.

In his new book, The People Vs Tech: How the internet is killing democracy (and how we save it), Jamie Bartlett, director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at the think tank Demos and a well-known author, argues that through our unquestioning embrace of big tech, “the building blocks of democracy are slowly being removed, sovereign authority and civil society is weakened and citizens are losing their critical faculties, maybe even their free will”.

But what is most profound, he says, is what is happening to political identity. “The Internet has opened new ways of forming, finding and joining ever-smaller tribes that we never even knew we belonged to, and stuffing ourselves full of evidence to harden the conviction. We are therefore seeing the fragmentation of singular, stable identities—like membership of a political party—and its replacement by ever-smaller units of like-minded people. Such tribalism is ultimately damaging to democracy, because it has the effect of magnifying the small differences between us, and transforming them into enormous, unsurpassable gulfs.”

Nevertheless, it is prudent to press the pause button now and then and reflect on the positive role social media has played around the world, before such a mass influx of falsehoods, half-truths and untruths began to erode its domain. The role of Twitter, Facebook and other social media in the Arab Spring protests in 2011, the mass agitation in Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park, the Maidan protests in Ukraine, the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, the campaigns in Iran, and the Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter campaigns in the United States are well-known examples of the digital media’s role in supporting the cause of truth and justice and democracy in a variety of contexts across the world.

A casual review of the popular social movements in India in recent years will offer a demonstration of their immense potential when used for true causes: as in the movements against the shocking instances of rape of minor girls and the weak laws to counter them; the growing violence targeting Muslims and Dalits in many States; right-wing mob attacks on women going to pubs; and in the struggles for a right to information law (2005); “India Against Corruption” (2011) and net neutrality (2015); and in student protests following the suicide of Rohith Vemula, the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar and against discriminatory policies in Banaras Hindu University; and in spontaneous, independent movements such as “#WeDoJallikattu”, supporting the traditional cattle sport jallikattu (taming of the bull) in Tamil Nadu, against attempts at cultural homogenisation and against government policies that caused several long-pending grievances.

Social media has also proved to be a powerful tool in other political and social campaigns, such as those relating to local governance, reform of public policy, the delivery of services and providing relief and support during natural calamities such as the floods in Chennai and Mumbai or the cyclones Vardah and Okhi that hit the east and west coasts recently.

Information pollution

But what “information pollution” does as it envelops digital media platforms and applications today is to diminish the liberating, democratic spark apparent in all such instances, denigrate the truths in genuine struggles, and tempt governments and others wielding power to use it as a pretext to unfurl the fetters on inconvenient movements, subdue the media in general and curb freedom of expression of citizens altogether. Already observers are quoting political philosophers such as Hannah Arendt and warning that “if citizens float around like corks in a stormy sea, unsure of what to believe or trust, they will be susceptible to the charms of demagogues”.

The cacophony of rumours, falsehoods and half-truths spreading today leaves much room for mobs to take over, puts the focus on what divides rather than what unites a nation, inflames passions, corrodes public trust in established institutions and unsettles the very poise of a democracy.

In March, speaking at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive festival, a huge technology event in the U.S. with its focus on emerging technology, Eli Pariser said: “This is the year when the mist and mythology around tech started to clear and we began to see how power is actually working in the new landscape built on code. And we are seeing what it looks like when power is not used for good. The first time I came to SXSW, in 2004, I believed deeply that the Internet was going to knock over the existing power structure and build something beautiful and decentralised and more truly democratic. That it would empower the disempowered. But I think it is now clear to us all that that has not really happened. We have not disrupted the structure of power, we have just transferred it from some people to others. And we are seeing this year that they are deeply incapable of wielding that power for the benefit of all.”

It leads to the question, Should not the laws of the real be applicable in the virtual world as well? Said Pariser: “Sometimes the best solution to a problem is not code. It is a law that makes things fair, makes things even…. As the philosopher John Locke said a few centuries ago, ‘the end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom… where there is no law, there is no freedom’.”

That is a thought that should perhaps be left open for an informed debate and a quick decision.

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