Nothing happened, and later it was discovered the panic was a result of rumours, mostly spread via messaging apps in the aftermath of the riots in north-east Delhi, which saw unprecedented hate spewed online.
By Reya Mehrotra
It started with a few youngsters running in the crowded west Delhi area last Sunday evening, shouting, “run, run, the rioters are coming”. The crowded streets emptied in a flash. My heart skipped many beats, as I saw shopkeepers downing shutters, women tripping, people dumping their cars and shopping bags in panic. I also ran to my house nearby and locked the gates. Phones rang continuously, and the metro station was shut within minutes. Nothing happened, and later it was discovered the panic was a result of rumours, mostly spread via messaging apps in the aftermath of the riots in north-east Delhi, which saw unprecedented hate spewed online.
So when Prime Minister Narendra Modi cryptically tweeted he would give up his social media accounts today, it instantly sparked debates if the social media had become too toxic and the PM was quitting because of this. Though it was later clarified he would hand over his accounts to women for Women’s Day, there are many who have done so, and many who believe the virtual violence is as bad as the actual one.
Last year, film maker Anurag Kashyap, known for his radical political views, quit Twitter amid threats to his family Actor-turned-politician Khushbu Sundar was among the many celebrities who gave up social media because of the toxicity. “I was turning into someone I could not recognise,” she said.
Pratik Sinha, co-founder of AltNews.in, an Indian fact checking website, says, “There is a troll army out there on social media that wants to counter with abuse, threats, etc. Social media is not a domain for hate speeches.”
He adds, “The main problem is there are a lot of anonymous Twitter accounts with no name and pictures on it. If the identity is not hidden, people are more careful with what they say. On Facebook, too, there are a lot of groups and pages that spread misinformation. There are business models today that incentivise the creation of content that has inauthentic elements. All this is creating chaos, a division between friends and families. The multicultural ethos of the country is being destroyed by polarising acts.”
The disillusionment from rumour-mongering and gory pictures and content in recent days has seen many quitting social media not for a digital detox, but to take a break from all the negativity. Even those vocal about their opinions have taken to appealing for peace and positivity through posts.
Social activist and co-founder of Political Shakti Tara Krishnaswamy, who actively posts on social media, says women get trolled much more than men and that we lack a good debating culture in our society. “People tend to target each other on social media. Many a time, I have to request people to edit their comments and not to be very aggressive. If it becomes too much to handle, I end up blocking people. I have been questioned on my abilities many times when I post something. A number of people I know have quit social media to get some quiet. Some have even left their family and college groups because their opinions clashed and arguments happened. The current political situation in the country has caused a division of opinions within families.”
Deepthi Nataraj, Bengaluru-based social media and digital communications expert, believes the age of intense political activism via social networking sites brings with it mental stress. She says, “There is no credibility to the information being posted online. It is one vicious cycle and addictive in nature. There is an urge to argue/debate that often takes an ugly turn and causes stress. No doubt, social media account deletions are on the rise after online spats and threats.”
While attempts are on at both governmental level and by social media companies to tackle this menace, little has been achieved. Even as new social media rules are in the works, temporary measures like the Delhi government announcing punishment and penalties for inflammatory messages on social media platforms have been taken.
A Twitter spokesperson told FE on Sunday, “Twitter has played an instrumental role in tackling abusive content and coordinated disinformation related to the Delhi riots. Protecting public conversation is our core mission and we worked at scale and swiftly towards taking down content and accounts that were in violation of our Twitter Rules, including dehumanising language and material that could trigger the risk of offline harm. We prevented certain hashtags from trending that were inciting hate on the basis of gender and religious affiliation. Retweeting or sharing screenshots can spread low quality or untrustworthy content further. While we are taking action on behaviour that violates our rules, reporting is still critical. If people on Twitter see something that violates the Twitter Rules, the most important thing they can do is report it, even if they’re not directly involved in the situation.”
A spokesperson from Facebook told FE, “We apply our community standards fairly and consistently and remove violating content whenever we become aware of it, regardless of who reported it. Equally, we do not remove content that doesn’t violate our Community Standards, regardless of who reported it. We also work with eight third-party fact-checking partners in India. If one of our third party fact checkers marks a piece of content as false, we immediately significantly reduce its distribution in News Feed, removing its ability to go viral and significantly reducing the number of people who see that content. For those who do come across it, we clearly label the content by placing a warning screen over it, making it clear that a fact checker has found it to be false, and we show an article from the fact checker underneath. We also notify anyone who subsequently tries to share the content that a fact checker has marked the content as false, to prompt them to think again before sharing.”
Sinha of AltNews suggests there should be more trained fact chekers and fact-checking institutions that are not sponsored by a particular group, as otherwise it becomes problematic.
Nataraj advises that utmost caution should be exercised on language, pictures, drawing inferences, usage of examples and, above all, there must be a judicious expression of thoughts. If one receives online threats, she suggests keeping the family informed and then approaching the cyber cell for help.