Corrective measures are not tied to incumbency

Four significant developments in the first fortnight of 2021 underline the need for an effective regulatory framework to ensure free speech without harming public good. The first was the decision of some platform companies to suspend U.S. President Donald Trump’s accounts in the wake of the violence at Capitol Hill. The second was the constantly shifting definition of hate speech and its relationship to free speech by a privileged section in the context of the U.S. election. The third was the supplementary chargesheet filed by the Mumbai Police while investigating the tampering of TRPs. The transcript of WhatsApp conversations between Republic TV Editor-in-Chief Arnab Goswami and the former Broadcast Audience Research Council CEO Partho Dasgupta, who was recently arrested, was revelatory. The fourth was the migration from messaging application WhatsApp to rival platforms such as Signal and Telegram due to privacy concerns.

Normalising bigotry

It would be rather naïve to applaud Silicon Valley conglomerates for suspending Mr. Trump’s accounts for his insidious social media posts. These powerful companies, since the time Mr. Trump became the presumptive presidential candidate in 2016, permitted him to normalise irrational behaviour, subvert democratic norms and replace civilised public interaction with toxic belligerence. They created space for many strongman leaders across the globe to subsume the independence of various institutions that were expected to provide checks and balances. The point is not that they acted against the U.S. President in his last days in office; it is that they are not willing to act against incumbent leaders who relentlessly use these platforms to polarise societies and normalise bigotry. The so-called independent companies have always tied their fortunes to the ruling regimes across the world. In the case of information companies, this opportunistic relationship creates a huge democratic deficit. The romanticisation of the ruling regimes by these platforms creates an environment where the quest by credible media publications to hold those in power accountable is projected as a partisan political act.

It was disturbing to see many of the President’s apologists invoke free speech and the First Amendment for his illogical questioning of the integrity of the election process. Though it may be difficult to spell out where free speech ends and hate speech begins, it is quite easy to sense these vital boundaries.

The operational portion of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s January 7 statement read: “The shocking events of the last 24 hours clearly demonstrate that President Donald Trump intends to use his remaining time in office to undermine the peaceful and lawful transition of power to his elected successor, Joe Biden. His decision to use his platform to condone rather than condemn the actions of his supporters at the Capitol building has rightly disturbed people in the US and around the world. We removed these statements yesterday because we judged that their effect -- and likely their intent -- would be to provoke further violence.” But when similar harmful statements were pointed out earlier, Facebook refused to take any corrective action. It played along with many polarising figures in power to cleave our society.

Poisoning the information well

For nearly a decade, media scholars have been pointing out that the frenzied debates on Indian TV news networks and the scant regard of these networks for self-regulation are poisoning the information well. The blurring of lines in the intercepted exchanges between Mr. Goswami and Mr. Dasgupta is a fine pointer to realise the difference between independent journalism and client journalism. In these debates, we rarely recognise the agency of citizens. They are not passive consumers of the poisoned chalice. They may not express their views and expectations on a regular basis. They tend to give a much bigger leeway to almost all institutions — legislature, judiciary, executive, and the media. But the moment they realise that their rights are being trampled upon, they act in unison. Telegram’s founder Pavel Durov made an important point when he said that the world is witnessing the ‘largest digital migration in human history’ when people began abandoning WhatsApp in favour of other messaging apps. The fact that WhatsApp opted to publish front-page advertisements in newspapers following the migration is both a moral and an existential story.

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Printable version | Mar 9, 2021 1:49:04 PM |

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