Nuance key to Madras HC’s ruling on forwarded messages
The precedent set by the Madras High Court ruling that a ‘forwarded message is equal to accepting the message and endorsing the message’, in a case against a BJP leader in Tamil Nadu who shared a derogatory public post on women journalists on a social media platform, is a double-edged sword. It is simultaneously a dangerous legal precedent and a way to rein in indiscriminate sharing of fake information, often with an intent to whip up divisive sentiments.
Social media and instant-messaging services have been wielded as amplifiers of misinformation to whip up polarising sentiments, and this has often triggered assaults and law and order situations. Recall the child-kidnapping rumours forwarded via WhatsApp that fed mass paranoia in Assam and resulted in the lynching of two youths or the assault on African youths in the national capital region over rumours of cannibalism, again spread via WhatsApp. In a scenario where Facebook posts and WhatsApp forwards are used to harvest bigotry and xenophobia, the High Court affixing responsibility of the impact, manifest or otherwise, to sharing of such posts/messages should spur more cautious and circumspect sharing. Thus, the order would seem a welcome one if it proves an effective curb on hateful content “going viral”.
The High Court’s order rejecting the anticipatory bail petition of journalist-turned-BJP leader S Ve Shekher tries to bring in some nuance to its ‘forward equals endorsement’ stand, noting that while what is said in message/post is important, “who has said it, is very important … When a celebrity-like person forwards messages like this, the common public will start (to) believe it that this type of things are going on.” However, chances are this nuance will be lost in politcised cases like that of the arrest of the West Bengal BJP worker for sharing a meme on chief minister Mamata Banerjee or that of the two Mumbai girls who criticised the funeral arrangements made for former Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray. Even in cases where a news-report or opinion piece is shared, deemed to have been put out after due diligence by the publication, if the content is deemed polarising or used to fuel bigotry, those who share can be held accountable under the precedent set by the HC judgment. Also, in cases where an organised network is used to spread fake news and hate-fuelling content, how will the ‘who said (shared) it’ touchstone be nuanced for those forming the hub of the hate-wheel? After all, they may not always be public personalities—or even persons (bots are used to increase tweet-reach).
While there is no denying that social media has allowed users to channel and publicise their prejudices with the cover of relative anonymity—and, therefore, accountability—it is also true that these are also being used to voice dissent. The Madras High Court ruling, with necessary nuance brought in, can become a catalyst for restraint and more prudent usage of social media. Sans any context-based modulation, it can prove a draconian muzzling of freedom of expression.