Antisocial behaviour on social media

Two events last week showed that technology has its limits in responding to humanitarian crises

Updated - March 18, 2019 12:22 am IST

Published - March 18, 2019 12:15 am IST

Social media users in parts of United States, Japan and some parts Europe were affected by the outage, according to DownDetector's live outage map.

Social media users in parts of United States, Japan and some parts Europe were affected by the outage, according to DownDetector's live outage map.

There are many unintended consequences of the growth of social media. The most disturbing is the fact that technology has its limits in responding to humanitarian crises. Last week, we saw two distressing developments: the sexual exploitation of women in Pollachi in Tamil Nadu and the brutal killing of 50 people by a gun-wielding white supremacist in Christchurch, New Zealand. In both these tragedies, the legacy media tried to provide credible information, without fanning religious hatred (in the case of New Zealand) and without assuming the role of the moral police (in the case of Pollachi). On the other hand, videos were forwarded recklessly on social media, causing great damage to the people affected as well as to the public sphere.

Thoughtlessly forwarding videos

In New Zealand, the gunman live-streamed his dastardly act on Facebook. It was evident that even as the New Zealand police and social media platforms scrambled to remove these videos, social media users were busy forwarding them thoughtlessly. A report in The Guardian revealed that YouTube, Facebook and Twitter were struggling to stop videos of the Christchurch attack from spreading on their platforms, as users were uploading new copies of the footage faster than the sites could take them down. It was also depressing to note that some media organisations, such as Sky News Australia, 10 Daily, Mail Online , TheMirror and The Sun, broadcast the edited version of the videos as well as the hate-spewing manifesto of the attacker. While many have taken these down following a backlash from the public, the damage this has caused is immense. According to reporters Alex Hern and Jim Waterson, who write on media and technology for The Guardian , one version of the video was left live on Facebook for at least six hours, while others were available on YouTube for at least three hours.

At the time of writing this column, Facebook claimed that it had removed 1.5 million videos worldwide within the first 24 hours of the attack. It also said it is trying to prevent the offensive videos from spreading further. It admitted that the speed at which it was deleting the videos was slower than the speed at which people were uploading them. British MP Ian Lucas, who sits on the House of Commons’ Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, said about social media platforms: “They have created a platform which creates unprecedented challenges which they can’t control fast enough and which leaves us with massive social problems that we need to face.” Mr. Lucas argued that it was too late to remove the posts, and said the platform companies don’t have the capacity to do it. He added that these companies should engage better with governments and the wider society to deal with this huge challenge.

The Verge said the mass shooting was “designed to spread on social media”. It wrote: “The quick spread of both the video and the manifesto tells us how inadequate moderation is on the Internet, assuming moderation exists at all. The video has been popping up again and again on YouTube and Twitter, and people are figuring out ways to get around the companies’ filters.”

Revealing the victim’s identity

Closer home, the Madras High Court ordered the Tamil Nadu government to pay an interim compensation of ₹25 lakh to the Pollachi survivor for “violation of her privacy and dignity”, because the investigating team revealed her identity in clear violation of the directives under both the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 and the 1997 Vishakha guidelines of the Supreme Court. The voyeuristic manner in which videos, pictures and audio files related to the sexual offences were circulated on social media and the prurient comments they generated have created irreparable damage to our public sphere. The story needed better treatment from the mainstream media than what it got initially, too. The shortcoming in this newspaper’s coverage was exemplified in the headline “Pollachi sex scandal triggers outrage among politicians” (March 12, 2019). It failed to capture the public anger that engulfed Tamil Nadu.

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