The issue of fake news being circulated became a major cause of concern during the pandemic when family members and friends all across the globe used Whatsapp private groups to share and circulate dodgy concern messages amongst each other. Speculations about the government plans and home-made remedies that could tackle coronavirus and incorrect do's and don'ts also became a part of the toxic culture. This circulation of fake news became a matter of such grave concern that WHO commented saying "fake news spreading about the pandemic is an info-demic".
These instances of Whatsapp being used as a convenient portal to spread fake news coupled with the horrific Tiktok videos glorifying forceful intercourse as a means of sexual gratification for men, anti-muslim sentiments and promoting acid attacks against women that emerged online have further shifted the narrative from the absolute and un-channelized freedom of speech online to whether India needs a dedicated legislation to combat hate speech and fake news online or not.
The dissemination of hate speech and dissolution of ideas of religious hatred or incitement of criminal activities within the Indian minds are not ideas that have emerged recently. The promotion of such spiteful content and infestation of young minds with angst against particular individuals, group or communities until a few years back was only restricted to the known channels of physical gatherings of people. Rallies, road shows and television promoted such dissemination, however these channels could easily be monitored given that the time and occurrence of such events is majorly always known. However with the maximum population having access to internet and the increased number of hours that an Indian spends on average on the internet, hate speech and fake news have found a new channel of dissemination that has no regulatory mechanism or guidelines to monitor online hate speech.
Indian audience is privy to the dissemination of the political parties' propaganda via online platforms to spread hatred towards a targeted sect or religion. These social networking sites' high competence and convenience in spreading information is exploited by political leaders to use them as channels so as to address the audience and stir hatred in their minds. The speed and ease of election campaigning on online platforms serves the best ill-interests of these political leaders, while on the other hand it obnoxiously results in infiltration in the minds of the youth by developing feelings of community hatred and religious enmity within them and makes them prone to committing crimes and spreading community violence.
Community Guidelines of Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Tiktok only act as a bare patchwork to monitor and regulate the content posted by the users on these platforms. Tiktok, a Chinese Company having 120 million Indian user base specifically has been garnering a lot of negative comments for stirring content that elicit criminal activities across the globe and thousands of videos have been taken down till date as the users have been exploiting this social network to spread hatred and violence. Not long ago in February 2019, in Tamil Nadu a man named Venkatraman posted a video on Tiktok bashing the Dalit community of that region and calling them out as dogs on the encouragement of another man named Vijay. The tiktok video soon went viral and triggered the Dalit mob of that village into protesting, resulting the police authorities criminally charging Venkatraman for the offences of inciting violence, criminal intimidation and intentional insults. The entire episode ended with a Venkatraman strangulating and murdering Vijay under the influence of a cheap local hooch. The geographical disconnect of the world with this remote village in which this crime took place made this episode go unnoticed by the rest of the 1.6 billion population. However this incident cannot be seen in isolation because numerous other such episodes are happening every day in India and even though they go unreported, we cannot turn a blind eye towards the harm that unfiltered online content can and has done to the country so far.
Banning these platforms can certainly seem as an option to stop this dissemination of hate speech and violence, however social media being one of the easiest modes to reach out to the masses has numerous other advantages as well, as opposed to the demerits that it serves. Reporting of such harmful online content to Facebook, Twitter and Tiktok is still not taken seriously by these companies and that reported content is not taken down immediately.
Another recent incident occurred when a series of videos capturing a political leader from Hyderabad and calling out to the a specific community as "cow killers" went viral on Facebook. Despite the fact that those videos were repeated reported to Facebook to be taken down, they still continued to be visible online for months on that Facebook page. The lack of accountability of these social media platforms in taking down the blatantly obvious hateful content despite it being reporting is leading to foster sentiments of hatred amongst different communities in India. And the lack of existing protective legal framework around platforms such as Whatsapp that is one of the worst breeding grounds for hate speech further makes the situation in India abysmal. Attachment of a certain amount of punitive liability on these social media houses by means of a strict legal State enforcement mechanism is the need of the hour.
At this juncture, it is only optimum for our country to look at other nations and take assistance from them on how they have reformed their legal system to stamp out the hate speeches posted online. For instance, the recent landmark laws of enforcement of online hatred law in France sets a good example of how the government took immediate cognizance of a live streamed attack on two New Zealand mosques on Facebook that generated hatred amongst the population of France. The French Government realised that merely accusing the online platforms for inaction would not amount to much unless there was a stringent law regulating their responsibility to monitor the content being posted online. Therefore in an attempt to protect the most vulnerable of the country, the government got into swift action. This law mandates that the social media network should remove the hateful content within 24 hours of it being reported and if the content continues to be posted online beyond the 24 hour mark, these tech companies would be fined upto 1.12 million Euros.
It is noteworthy that the internet giants do have various AI-based algorithmic technologies and staff employed to identify and curb the abuse of the online space used as a hate spreading monger. However the lack of a definition of what constitutes hateful content often leaves a lot of grey area for detection and therefore the automated moderation tools are unable to detect the content that is hate generating due to a lack of a definition of what amounts to hate worthy and what doesn't. And even if we assume outstanding efficiency of these automated tools in to detecting and taking down the offensive online content, the problem would still persist because more often than not, the "report content" feature of the platforms is suffering from a technical glitch. Unless a post/content is "reported" on the platform, the automated detection tool does not get into action.
India needs to have a similar law like the one enacted by the French Government that firstly enables the users to report the content that they think would trigger community crimes. Furthermore, the law should have a broader yet not regressive meaning, of what can be considered to be hateful and offensive speech. It is to be noted that certain sentiments and statements account for greater harm in the society owing to the prevailing circumstances in which they are made. Therefore, the definition of hateful speech under the proposed legislation should also account for the intervening circumstances in which it is made.
The present mechanism of dealing with the hate speech at the time of elections is obscure and redundant in India because the usual procedure demands a legal notice to be issued to the politicians who spread the hatred, followed by a police complaint made against them. This entire procedure warrants lapse of long intervals of time. The hate posts continue to stay online for all this while and further trigger hatred in the masses. Therefore strict regulation of a time frame within which the content has to be assessed by the online portals and removed is essential to this proposed legislation. A separate punitive and criminal liability should be imposed on the party that uploads such hateful content online, depending on the gravity of the nature of the content. The compliance of this legislation would further demand all these social networking sites to have a dedicated Regulatory/Monitoring Team that solely works on assessing the content that is being flagged online. Moreover, this proposed legislation should encompass that these companies also assess all the data posted online at regular periods. The content that is "reported" should not be the only content falling under the scrutiny of assessment of whether it is safe to remain being posted or not. Largely all the data posted online should be checked under the "test of being safe content".
Therefore, it is imperative for the government to exercise the powers invested in their good offices and to address this urgent issue at hand as the need of the hour and bring justice to the innocent lives that have been lost as a consequence of hatred spilling content online and to stop the innocent minds of the nation from being maligned by such offensive and hate generating content. After all, like it has been wisely said and noted that it's better to be safe than sorry.
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