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Vanita Kohli-Khandekar: The venom online

Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and others have done us a world of good but they also unleash the worst of human nature. Can the law offer a middle path?

Vanita Kohli-Khandekar 

Vanita Kohli-Khandekar

Show me, show me," said the mother of an 11-year-old girl to another mum at a gathering earlier this month. The son and grand-daughter of two of India's biggest film stars had reportedly been taped while making out. One woman was passing the video clip to the other. I pointed out that forwarding it on WhatsApp is probably a crime especially since those two kids are minors. Also, how would she feel if someone were to circulate clips of her daughter's indiscretions. The lady with the clip deleted it and the other one said, "That's true."

Late one night last week my husband got a message on WhatsApp. Somebody needed O+ blood urgently. Since he is the right type, he called the sender. She had no clue who needed the blood and whether they had got it. The message had been forwarded so many times, that no one knew. Another friend called the patient's numbers. It turned out to be a hoax.

Just as an experiment, post a comment that questions anything that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government is doing and watch the reactions. You will be roundly abused.

Social media such as Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and others have done us a world of good - by making communication cheaper, easier, quicker. But it has also brought out the worst in humanity - voyeurism, hatred, bile, slapdash opinions, intolerance. Never has the need for instant gratification of every little feeling been so easy. And never have so many millions of people gratified themselves, emotionally, intellectually and morally with such abandon and so publicly - without checking facts, without bothering with right or wrong and without worrying about the harm they may be causing someone else. It is a bit like the hippie culture of the mid-sixties - let it all hang out, man.

If you were at a gathering and disagree with someone you would probably argue with them, gently, then forcefully. And if there is no consensus you might agree to disagree or just drop the subject. But many online discussions begin from the shouting, screaming stage - figuratively speaking. There is no intermediate phase. Everybody wants to talk, nobody wants to listen. And almost everybody who wants to talk has a strong and not always erudite

In response to analytical pieces I wrote on corruption in media, I have been accused (on Twitter and on email) of trying to up Business Standard's ad rates. This is nothing compared to what celebrities face online - the threat of rape, dirty pictures and verbal abuse. Under pictures of Priyanka Chopra standing with folded hands to greet people coming to mourn her father's death, somebody posted a comment saying she was posing to show the tattoo on her wrist that read "Daddy's lil girl".

While discussing this with a lawyer, we debated whether it was anonymity that encouraged bad behaviour or just the nature of the online medium that breeds so much hatred. And how does this sit with the whole freedom of speech argument?

The only restriction on freedom of speech, granted under the Indian Constitution, is when it threatens national security and public order. The controversial section 66A of the Information Technology Act (2000) criminalises the sending, through a computer device, messages that are, "offensive or false or created for the purpose of causing annoyance or inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred or ill-will." This led to a spate of arrests in 2012, including that of a couple of teenage girls in Maharashtra for criticising the bandh after Balasaheb Thackeray's death. This led to a directive, in 2013, that restricts its indiscriminate use. There is now an entire campaign (rightly) to have Section 66A scrapped.

The other question is - do we need the law for this or is it just another "Indian" trait. We spit, we litter, we drive badly, treat the underprivileged like scum - similarly we behave badly online. That, however, does not answer why Monica Lewinsky or Jennifer Lawrence face offensive behaviour online in the US where freedom of speech in practised in the real sense and where online is a robust market.

Human nature perhaps? And if so, does online hatred help reduce violence on the ground? It will take several decades of online existence to answer these questions accurately.

Twitter: @vanitakohlik

First Published: Tue, October 28 2014. 21:46 IST