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It’s not elementary, my dear social media

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To all the overnight Sherlocks who bloomed gloriously online over the last month…

Television used to have a hilarious Hindi serial called CID, whose detectives were even more inept than our real-life cops, if that is at all imaginable. They would stand about looking intelligently at a corpse with a bullet in its head and say, “Iska khoon zaroor kisi katil ne kiya hoga.” (He must surely have been killed by a killer.)

Social media users displayed that same startling level of intelligence in the last few weeks. You could take a crude photograph of any damn piece of paper or a shirt from your laundry basket or a footprint from your doormat, post it online, and they would chorus in unison, “This is the ultimate proof in the IIT-M case.” It would be hysterically funny if it weren’t so tragic.

What is it about social media that turns us all into instant detectives or forensic experts or judges online? Is it the convenient lack of physical proximity that makes us so insensitive, arrogant and opinionated about everything under the sun?

Every big or small incident produces an instant commentariat. We don’t know the people involved. We don’t know the circumstances, the context, the backgrounds or history of any of the stake-holders. Yet, we see fit to pass expert opinions that would lay us open to slander and civil defamation charges in any country with a judiciary capable of passing judgement inside of three decades of a case coming to it.

The incident I refer to, of course, is the tragedy that occurred in early November when a first-year student of Humanities at IIT-Madras was found hanging in her hostel room. In the aftermath of her death, very little information was publicly available that could be relied upon as factual. What we had were breathless rumours, hearsay and gossip.

We also read mystifying accounts of how the cops had left the phone belonging to the girl “lying around” on a table in the police station. Anyone walking in could pick it up and play with it. Since I nourish myself on a steady diet of detective novels and TV serials like CSI, I was horrified about fingerprints and forensic tests and all the rest of it. Until I realised that our cops are a far hardier breed — they don’t need all this pussyfooting around clues and evidence. Like Poirot, all they need are their “little grey cells”, and most crimes solve themselves.

As for our social media, it has even larger grey cells. It solves crimes not only without evidence but without even being present there. And so after the IIT-M incident, many of our intelligent citizens took it upon themselves to “condemn” somebody, to demand “punishment” for somebody else, and to confidently state the reasons why the student might have taken her life, as if they had all been present there in person.

What did they actually see? A few grainy photographs — one appeared to be a screenshot of the student’s phone, and another was the photograph of a printed note held in someone’s hand. Each note claimed to be from the victim and each named various professors. Given there was no authentication, those photographs could have been taken in Timbuctoo or Toronto, but for our social media detectives, it was conclusive proof. As it turned out, the girl’s father himself later categorically called the printed note fake.

You don’t get to play detective just because you have a social conscience or you belong to an interest group that works for a marginalised segment. The fact that Dalits or Muslims or women are likely to get short shrift while seeking justice does not allow for the dilution of the process of just enquiry. It was even more embarrassing to see how irresponsibly political parties from the Left and the DMK swung into action. Dangle the merest hint of mileage, and our politicians morph overnight into crusading knights, like caterpillars into butterflies.

The saddest part, of course, is that nobody gave a damn about the students. The IITs have one of the world’s most challenging academic programmes, and the students need processes that care for their mental and physical welfare as much as for their learning. It would be far more useful if our social media sleuths tried talking about these issues instead of looking at a fingerprint and cleverly calling it a footprint.

Where the writer tries to make sense of society with seven hundred words and a bit of snark

 

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Printable version | Dec 16, 2019 6:36:28 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/its-not-elementary-my-dear-social-media/article30116560.ece

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