Blocking Twitter handles is like yelling ‘shut up’ to a person screaming!

The guillotine for dandruff? That’s the broad charge against the government of India for its attempt to clamp down on the social media against the backdrop of rumour-triggered violence against citizens from the North East. Faced with a volatile situation, the authorities were undoubtedly walking on egg shells. But by blocking twitter handles of innocent but well-connected individuals, the authorities ended up with egg on their face; scoring an own goal, as the social media waved the red card with somewhat justified ‘I told you so’ indignation. Not to speak of sermons on how the government could have tackled rumours with information; instead of going after parody accounts.

We do need to understand that the social media emerged the way it has, because of disenchantment against the common enemy — the ‘system’ — politicians, officials and even the mainstream media. And when officialdom takes on this section that’s armed to the finger nails with anonymity, it’s a lost battle from the start. Like Jesus said ‘he who has not sinned pick up the first stone’; the social media is entitled to ask politicians as to how many of them have made inflammatory speeches in the past. What is their credibility to now preach to the common man? The malady is that neither are the authorities tech-savvy or quick enough nor do they understand human psychology to deal with this rather piquant situation. Piquant also because there are vast sections on twitter who lack the maturity to hold their punches when circumstances warrant restraint or to even suffer fools gladly.

To add to the circus are innumerable self styled ‘cyber experts’ who vie with one another or even hire PR agencies, for their 15 seconds of ‘fame’ on national television or to try a ‘quote’ marshall in the papers, just to spew text book sort of ‘solutions’ like the constitution of a Super Nodal Agency or whatever, with some of them as members! Blocking is often a cure worse than the disease. It’s like yelling ‘shut up’ to a man screaming! And the SMS restriction that was by-passed made officials seem too clever by half. Still, there were those who couldn’t get text alerts on bank account withdrawals, delays in train and flight departures, stock market updates.

I’m just wondering if it is possible to monitor key search words and take quick corrective action. The Cyber Society Of India has mooted the idea of India developing its own indigenous operating systems, search engines, anti-virus kits and servers, so that we don’t have to rely on foreign powers for technological support during an emergency. The suggestion on mobile phone number verification for website creation or on social networking platforms comes from those who probably have not watched A Wednesday! Identity proof is hardly foolproof today. Every time you get your driving licence or some other ID card photocopied outside, how sure are you that an extra copy isn’t surreptitiously made and misused? All that you need to get a pre-paid SIM card is a photocopy of any of these documents! Physical verification of addresses based on identity proof submitted happens at least a fortnight later. Unless, in this case, twitter has proper filters and more importantly, the will to keep out incendiary content, a realistic golden mean between free speech and hate speech can hardly be worked out.

Coming to the much bandied about ‘self regulation’ magic potion. It did work with the mainstream media especially during the Babri Masjid judgment. The National Broadcasters Association is a vibrant body that silently sets standards and tries to make news channels adhere to a code of ethics. The Press Council Of India has a proactive, well meaning but sometimes misunderstood Chief. Early in my career, I remember Superintendents Of Police in sensitive districts informing journalists about some statue of a caste leader being damaged by miscreants but requesting us not to report it in the interest of peace. I know of many mediapersons who complied with it, in public interest. Because free speech is not absolute.

And in a toss up between freedom of expression and human life, the latter must always prevail. The social media that has its legitimate space in a democracy must also show restraint in a crisis. That will be a far better response to politicians than calling them names.

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