Rumour spreading must be taxed – Here is why

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New Delhi | Published: August 29, 2018 3:03:38 AM

Much of mob violence is irrational as people partaking in it do not think, either before, or during, the committing of the act. Hence, punishments aren’t likely to work.

If I am the originator of a forwarded message, I pay a tax. If I forward a message that was sent to me, I pay a higher tax than the originator of the message. (Representational photo)

Given the breakout of mob violence every now and then, there is increasing pressure on state and Central governments to pass stricter laws to curb them. There are two problems with this, often pointed out in the literature on crime and punishment. Punishments work only if they act as a deterrent and that presupposes a planned act. Fearing harsh punishment, a person thinking of committing an illegal act will think (at least) twice before undertaking it. Unfortunately, much of mob violence is irrational as people partaking in it do not think, or rationalise their actions, either before, or during, the committing of them. Moreover, they believe there is ‘safety in numbers’ as the apparent spontaneity of these actions prevent the police from being there when they happen while onlookers fear being targeted if they try to stop them.

The second problem with harsh punishments is that they create a parallel activity of avoidance of punishment. This becomes especially important when such actions are politicised, or are ideologically driven and there is weak enforcement to boot. Mob violence is a sociological problem in India. We love our Bollywood superstars because they mercilessly beat up the ‘bad’ guy in a police lock-up before he is convicted by a court of law. Many of us do not try to stop, or even flinch, when an accused child thief is beaten up in public.

I am not saying that persons participating in mob violence should not be identified and punished, or even severely punished. I am saying that given these acts are not entirely rational but instinctive, or mistakenly thought to be righteous, deterrence alone may not be sufficient to prevent them. One may need to go one step behind the incidents to stop them rather than focussing only on what to do after they have happened.

In many of these incidents, social media was used to either ‘spread’ the word (rumour) or mobilise like-minded people. This has obviously led to a clamour for restricting the use of social media through investing greater powers in the law and order machinery of the state to identify and punish such activities carried out through this medium. As is natural in knee-jerk responses, companies and organisations running social media have been targeted by many and are being held responsible for the outbreaks of mob violence.

As pressure mounts on social media, WhatsApp has restricted the number of ‘forwards’ each message is allowed. This is not going to help. Suppose I have 10 other people in my group and each of them has groups with 10 distinct people. X belongs to my group and to another group that does not have me or any of the other members in my group. And suppose that what is true of X is also true of all the other members in my group. Then, immediately, my forwarded message can reach a 100 people. And if these 100 forward to non-overlapping groups, it reaches a 1000 people. That is many times more than the number of people participating in any particular incident of mob violence.

Ultimately, the best way to stop the spread of rumours that incite mob violence is to hold me responsible for forwarding such messages. I forward a message, without ascertaining its authenticity, simply because I have no direct cost from doing so. This is very similar to the way a polluter pollutes. While the pollution creates a negative externality for others, the polluter faces no direct cost. Society has addressed this problem by taxing the polluter through the ‘polluter pays’ principle. Forwarded messages can similarly be taxed by the government.

The tax does not go to the entity which owns the platform but to the government. In other words, a messaging service can be kept free though users have a cost for sending messages. There are instances of free services being taxed already. For instance, when one gets a free ticket on an airline against accumulated travel miles, the person does not pay the airline for the travel but does pay the taxes the government charges on each ticket. Indeed, the government can make this tax ‘progressive’. If I am the originator of a forwarded message, I pay a tax. If I forward a message that was sent to me, I pay a higher tax than the originator of the message. Just as the polluter reduces pollution to save on taxes, spreading rumours will be restrained as the rumour-monger will now have to pay a price.

-Shubhashis Gangopadhyay & Vijay Kelkar. Gangopadhyay is research director and Kelkar is chairman at IDF

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