Censorship, particularly of the internet is always stridently opposed in India. Every once in a while when a report pointing towards freedom of speech coming under attack makes the rounds, it causes an uproar. Just this week Reporters Without Borders, a media watchdog gave India the dubious distinction of being among the top 5 deadliest countries for journalists along with Syria, Somalia, Pakistan & the Philippines.The report says that the toll of eight journalists killed in connection with their work in 2013 broke all records in India.
Media journal The Hoot also talks of how their study finds a spike in the curbs on free speech this year with both instances of censorship and surveillance increasing. Interestingly the report also notes of a rising graph of deaths, attacks and threats to journalists as well as a range of citizens who speak up on social media as an indication of “intolerance to alternative ideas and opinions” exemplifying “the impunity which the attackers enjoy, often with the complicity of the very authorities entrusted with the task of upholding law and order.”
A public outcry over safety for journalists and attempts to gag dissent is indeed constructive; but there is another facet of the social media that isn’t spoken about with as much fervour in India - the abuse that’s perpetrated under the garb of free speech by common people. The growing spite and offensiveness on Twitter used by trolls to insult and attack people for their views, and the impunity which perpetrators of these attacks enjoy, is disturbing to say the least.
Twitter itself is in a state of flux as it fights for the two contradictory aims of upholding free speech rights and reining in abuse. Just last week it changed its policy on the block function after a wave of protests from users facing cyber exploitation.
At the forefront, facing harassment are often journalists and media personalities. And there is no better example perhaps than popular television anchor Sagarika Ghose who is a regular victim of abusive slurs and cyber bullying to figure what it is that’s turned the cyberspace into a vicious combat zone. She told the BBC earlier this year that her abusers tended to be rightwing and misogynistic, and that retaliation would lead to more abuse. Ghose says she has now stopped putting out her views on Twitter, but that hasn’t stopped the attacks.
Ghose is not alone, neither are attacks on women limited to the geography of India. Activist Kavita Krishnan was asked by a person with the handle @RAPIST whether he could rape her using a condom. In the UK, broadcaster Mary Beard was called a filthy old slut recently while a campaign to put Jane Austin on a bank note was threatened by Twitter trolls. Back home another popular broadcaster Barkha Dutt is often at the receiving end of brazen rudeness, even finicky dissection of every grammar and punctuation error she makes.
Claire Hardaker, professor of Linguistics at Lancaster University agrees with Ghose that there is misogyny. Writing for The Guardian, she also blames other aspects like boredom, a need for attention, perhaps too much free time or even a sense of disenfranchisement among the jobless to explain this online climate of hate. I wouldn't hesitate to think it’s also a syndrome of playing to the gallery in an attempt to attract more followers, or plain moments of Schadenfreude (as seen when the story of Tarun Tejpal’s sexual misdemeanours broke) being enjoyed on a larger more fluid platform as opposed to a living room gossip session among a small group of friends.
It is also possibly a misplaced notion that the online world is a free for all.
‘#Barkha getting ugly day by day. Saw her face after a year on Google Hangout. Last nail in the coffin is just away!’ read one recent tweet, demonstrating just how unabashedly untailored and hurtfully blunt people can get in the online world. This is not something, anyone would normally say to Barkha Dutt in person, over the phone or anywhere there are repercussions to be felt.
Is it then that the online space offers a sense of inscrutability and anonymity emboldening us to attack?
“Taking to a digital space, for some people, is like slipping into an alternate dimension – one without repercussions. People already do this by labelling spaces "cyber" and "real" (beyond actual useful concepts), as if the two areas exist in different spheres of causal unassailability” wrote Tauriq Moosa, Guardian blogger on ethics, technology and pop culture in one of his recent columns on why we seem to cheer online nastiness.
How must one stop this spite? Should the much dreaded Section 66 A of the IT Act be unleashed? Should there be a few convictions and prison terms to set a precedent? Or is the net too wild an animal to track down and tame?
“Free speech is not the right to say what you want. If social media is a gigantic public highway, all those using it must not only follow rules but also accept the inevitability of some surveillance”, wrote Ghose in a column for Outlook Magazine last year. “What is needed is for social media stakeholders, legal experts and government to come together and create a detailed code of hate speech and the punishment each offence will carry. In some cases FIRs must be registered and convictions must happen.”
Legal remedies can be examined. But the bigger issue really is a psychological one – of our suppressed mob mentality and inherent viciousness that’s finding voice and manifesting itself so blatantly in a world that’s unimpeded by the rules of face to face social engagement.
No legal tinkering or Twitter policy changes can solve that.