Regulating social media isn’t easy, but it may be necessary

The Press Council Chairman Justice Katju quit twitter in five days. The experience and feedback from many quarters were probably what egged him on to recently recommend some form of regulation of the ‘Rules Of Discourse’ in the social media. That was enough to open the floodgates of vitriol. Why do we need to follow the George Bush dictum of the Gulf War vintage: ‘You are either with us or against us.”?

If what Justice Katju has in mind is not blocking fair comment but filtering vulgar, inflammatory and defamatory content, how can anyone have a problem with that? A disturbing fact is that if you say something remotely critical of the social media, you inevitably subject yourself to scorn and abusive tweets, blogs and posts. The public resentment of the ‘system’, of politicians and of the mainstream media may have contributed to this ‘touch me not’ syndrome . Or as a tweet put it, this is the new ‘Janata Ki Adalat’.

It takes all kinds to make the social media. There are scores of unsung heroes on twitter. Take for instance, this group ‘@BloodAid’. It’s an initiative to bridge the gap between blood donors and patients in need. The Facebook pages of Alex Paul Menon, the abducted Sukma Collector and that of his wife Asha Alex, have been overflowing with messages of support, prayers, sharing of numbers, pictures, links and condemnation of the act, from the minute the news broke. Thank God his wall didn’t disallow posts, which is a privacy option. Today, the fastest way to confirm news is through the social media.Earlier this month, the tremors and the tsunami scare played itself out on twitter and Facebook. With mobile networks jammed, these updates were the saving grace.

No one should be allowed to police free speech and thought. Sufficient leeway for criticism, humour, disagreement and rebuttal is essential. But hold on. Just recently, an actor while engaging in an innocuous discussion on Shah Rukh Khan’s detention in the US, had a nasty reply popping up: “You want actors to be worshipped in the US the way they are in India? They are no more than prostitutes.” This isn’t banter that you can shrug off. Neither is it a wisecrack like a post I came across on Facebook: “bird brains tweet the most.”.

This is the difference between Facebook and twitter. On the latter, strangers can usually invite themselves to someone’s party and vitiate it. You can choose to confirm those who follow you on twitter but that’s an option few exercise. I was horrified to see uncharitable comments on the religion of the abducted Collector. And in response to a clever message on Easter – “You can put truth in a grave; but it won’t stay there” – there were sarcastic comments on the resurrection. Can any right thinking person hold a brief for such tweets? Invariably they emanate from those who hide behind vague profiles. You need to be at the receiving end of vilification to appreciate the need for some control of what has become a behemoth.

It’s easy to say, ‘file cases if content is offensive’. How? It’s not as if the hate comment comes with a full postal address. The service providers are sitting in a foreign land, and establishing identity of an offender is a challenge.

It’s not the genuine users but mischief mongers who need to worry about reasonable restrictions. Films have a Censor Board. Television needs an uplink licence and is governed by the Cable TV Act, apart from being subject to the laws of the land and self regulatory bodies like the National Broadcasters Association. Today, when you post video links on the social media, you become a sort of broadcaster yourself. It’s an extension of citizen journalism and I welcome it. But the danger of such tools, when unregulated, falling into the wrong hands, is too serious to be ignored.

To those who are already itching to throw their hat into the regulation ring, it’s worth recalling a quote attributed to Voltaire: “I may disagree with what you say but I will defend to death your right to say it”. But there is a difference between dissent and abuse. All the stakeholders must realise that ‘be you ever so social, the law is above you.’

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