Freedom of speech and expression under Article 19 of the Indian Constitution forms the core of our democratic value system. Degradation in this value system occurs when this constitutional right takes the form of hate propaganda. It is best reflected in the way communally-charged content and outright hate speech has polarized the current Indian polity by capitalizing on the anonymity and omniscience of social media networks.
With the single majority of BJP in 2014 general elections and aggressive campaigning by it, elections have increasingly become a do-or-die situation for all the political parties. In today’s bitterly fought electoral schema, the election has become a war and political speeches have been replaced by warmongering (hate speech) against the opponents.
In this perception battle, whoever wins is a master strategist and this very notion is making the election campaigning increasingly inciting with lesser restraint and consideration of what is being spoken/done to the electorates. Thus, the competition between “Hate Speech” and “Model Code of Conduct” has become a recurrent theme in Indian elections. Election Commission of India (ECI) is also being overwhelmed by the increasing number of sources involved in generating and sharing hate speech, with the social media providing a platform for greater outreach.
Section 123(3) of the Representation of People Act, 1951, clearly prohibits such political speeches which promote or attempt to promote, feelings of enmity or hatred between different classes of the citizens of India on grounds of religion, race, caste, community, or language. India’s social life is still plagued by these fault lines on the basis of social/religious categories and is often reflected in political speeches. Election Commission has punished many prominent politicians (Yogi Adityanath, Mayawati, Azam Khan, Menka Gandhi etc) for hate speeches in the ongoing general elections. It proves that these provisions of the law have proved nothing more than paper tigers.
Here comes the role of press/media. Its role is to raise the awareness level of electorates by running the programs based on facts and dispelling the myths and misconceptions from the public discourse. It must be equipped with the knowledge and skills to identify hate speech and to counteract it with the facts. However, there were many instances in recent times where press/media was directly/indirectly involved in propagating hate speech. For example, the News Broadcasting Standards Authority ordered a national news broadcaster to apologize for malicious coverage. In a different case, activists wanted one another channel to be sued for hate speech.
In the last few years, many journalists have started speaking like politicians and rather than fact checking or critically analyzing the speeches, they seem to be explaining or endorsing those speeches. They are even very quick in branding/categorizing activists under the fancy names as Maoists, Urban Naxals, anti-nationals etc. Such branding does not merely tarnish the reputation of the subject of the speech, but it also has the potential to incite violence/hatred against them. A hate campaign against JNU student Umar Khalid using social and mainstream media culminated in an attack on him last year. Does it not amount to media trial or a sort of informal justice system?
If not media trial, then this task of differentiating between nationals and anti-nationals gets transferred to the public itself, which is not hindered by the restrictions based on established standards of human rights, neutrality and the Rule of Law ( as it is the mob mentality which drives them to indulge in such acts). The mob-related violence and killings following the spread of rumours in recent times are a testimony to it.
We should keep in mind that regular polarized political debates on the news channels are also a contributor to the widening social fissures. Another issue with media is that nowadays terming extremists/hardliners as “firebrand” leaders has become a new fashion. So, instead of making them accountable for their speech, they are hailed as mass leaders representing the popular opinion. It is equivalent to glorifying their statements and many misguided youths see role models in them. It can also be termed as a hate speech by media as they are not actually disapproving or countering those statements with facts.
This is a very disturbing trend given the media’s considerable influence over the society and the trust factor between them. There is a very thin line between fact-reporting and the political views of a journalist. Blurring this line will have a negative consequence as the media content are assumed to have a greater element of authenticity as compared to the personal opinions of politicians.
Today, provocative private opinions have the prospect of making big in the public space. The emergence of social media has created multiple platforms for the production, packaging, repackaging and dissemination of such opinions. False (distorted) claims and arguments can be escalated to the level of conspiracies. Today, apart from the political personalities, we can see many social media profiles where users (vigilante groups, extremists/hardliners etc) regularly come live on Facebook and spread venom against others on the basis of sex, religion, caste etc. In many profiles, their very introduction about themselves can be treated as hate speech. The mainstream political landscape is being shadowed by these fringe elements and many times, they are directly/indirectly associated with the mainstream political parties.
In the last few years, India’s political landscape has been dotted with a network of cyber volunteers. This is the case with almost all the political parties, although the sophistication level varied across the party lines. Many times, this network is used to misinform the public through the circulation of manipulated/doctored photos/videos on a coordinated social media network through their IT Cells. Recently, many such accounts associated with Facebook were removed by the company. When it comes to WhatsApp, its end-to-end encryption technology is a valuable privacy tool. But, the company has very less visibility into what is being shared and there is no way to track down disinformation/fake news because of its encrypted nature.
We also know about the Cambridge Analytica scandal where the personal data were obtained through Facebook profiles and was used for political purposes without consent. There were also allegations in India that political parties have collected personal data to classify voters on the basis of their location, religion, caste, age, socioeconomic status etc and add them to respective chat groups. And through these groups, propaganda is used to reinforce the existing prejudices and evoke fear psychosis.
It can be explained in an easy way. Let us take the example of first-time voters. Their voting choice is not a reasoned one and is not shaped by critical analysis of the prevailing socio-economic conditions. Hence, these young minds are quite vulnerable to manipulation and relatively easy to get mould. Being confused, they might feel deluged with the political choices presented. In this state of electoral chaos, they come across misinformed political messages and hateful rhetoric on social media networks and are very prone to get influenced by it. Hence, there was a lot of controversies when Prime Minister Modi had urged the first time voters to dedicate their votes in the name of the Balakot air strike heroes and the soldiers killed in the Pulwama attack (even though Election Commission had warned parties against using the armed forces in their campaigns).
This big personal data can also be used for building a personality cult around a leader by skilfully exploiting the social media. In another way, it is also achieved through dissemination of political messages and memes that demonize and denigrate the opponent. Much of it is achieved through forwarding/sharing messages on the social media groups. For example, in the aftermath of the Balakot air strikes, there was a surge in the propagation of misinformation. And as per many surveys, this will play an influential role in the ongoing election. However, this strategy increases the bitterness among the parties/candidates and symbolizes election as misinformation warfare, rather than the largest festival of Indian democracy.
Thus, elections in India have become synonymous with solving statistics/big data problem or a sort of data manipulation, rather than strive for providing a better policy alternative. In short, it’s a mockery of democracy where citizens are being manipulated to assert their choice in a particular way. It is a disturbing trend, especially in a country like India where electoral literacy is very low. (By electoral literacy, I mean the state of mind where the voter can make an informed decision on the basis of facts and critical analysis, rather than on the basis of false promises, misinformation and the hateful rhetoric).
One argument is often given that in the long run social media network will only strengthen democracy by allowing all ideas to compete. In this way, the best will emerge and survive in the long term. However, this argument is conditional one where we assume our society to be the educated and informed one, which is not the case with India. The best in this scenario will be a regressive one unless social consumers know the facts regarding the history and socioeconomic construct of our society.
Hence, there is a need for a massive campaign that sensitizes people towards media (including social media) consumption and helps them differentiate between free speech and hate speech. And everyone (Media, ECI, Civil Society, Government etc) has to play their respective role in this regard. We should not let the technology shake the foundations of our democracy; rather it should be used to strengthen it.