Fundamentalists get Facebook to shut down groups that promote rational discussions

The repeated attacks faced by a community on the social networking site Facebook because of its socio-religious discussions are a reflection of the rising intolerance towards diverse views in mainstream society, it is pointed out.

Free Thinkers was started as a platform for open discussions and debates on religion and culture and in no time, the community started getting attacked by religious extremist groups. “At one point, our group, which was an open group, had a strength of around 43,000 members and we used to discuss issues like religion and politics. Soon we noticed systematic efforts to close down the group, as abuse was reported in a concerted manner against the group,” said Farmis Hashim, a teacher in an engineering college and one of the administrators of the group.

Attempts like these are common online. “Attacks from groups that differ intellectually or ideologically to the discussions happening online are quite frequent,” said Hari Nair, director (technical) of Information Kerala Mission, who was one of the main players behind the setting up of Netizen Police, the online interactive platform for the State police and the public.

“During the initial phase of Netizen Police, we had to brave a lot of negative postings and had to restrict access to many people. The trend reflected the growing level of intolerance among the youth,” Mr. Nair said.

The situation is worsened by the fact that the social media is yet to mature in India. “I do not think the social media culture in India has matured enough to handle a serious or refined debate on social issues. We are still in the honeymoon phase,” said C.J. John, a psychiatrist.

The cover of anonymity offered by the online discussions will magnify the expression of emotions, be it hatred towards diverse opinions or solidarity. “Just like a meek person becoming bold enough to react along with a crowd, Facebook increases the tendency to express personal opinions uninhibitedly,” said Dr. John.

Following resistance from Islamic and Hindu fundamentalists, the group Free Thinkers was closed down three times.

“During the first two occasions, it was banned only in India and could be accessed from abroad. The last time, it was taken off comprehensively. Now, we have uploaded the group from Germany, where one of our administrators is stationed now,” Mr. Hashim said.

The group was started three years ago and about six month ago, it was blocked for the first time. The second attempt by the administrators to have the group online lasted for two weeks before it was taken off. The third attempt lasted three weeks, during which the group enlisted more than 10,000 members.

“We tried to contact the Facebook officials to retrieve the original group, which we believe get blocked automatically when abuse is reported. Despite repeated reminders, there was no response from the Facebook and we are expecting another attack soon as there are group dedicated to attack ours,” said Mr. Hashim.

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