By K Raveendran
In parts of the world where extreme principles of Shariah justice are practised, an eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth are still the norm. People have been blinded for hurting their victims in the eye and hands chopped off to ensure retribution of crimes committed with hands. But even in these societies, limbs are not cut off for the fear that they could be used for criminal activities. Of course, female genital mutilation is prevalent in many societies, supposedly to ensure ‘acceptable’ sexual behaviour by girls and women. But otherwise, the extreme punishments are meted out after the crimes have been committed.
Indian Muslims do practice Shariah, but not the type described above. But unfortunately, some of our policies with regard to information technology and communications border on those lines. We virtually end up shooting the messenger. IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad’s approach to the problems caused by messenger platform Whatsapp typically signifies a highly undesirable Shariah-type framework.
In his meeting with Chris Daniel, CEO of the Facebook-owned WhatsApp messenger, the minister nearly put the entire blame for mob violence and lynching in the country on the wildly popular messaging application. “The company needs to find solutions to deal with sinister developments like mob-lynching and revenge porn and has to follow Indian law,” Prasad reportedly told media persons. WhatsApp could face abetment charges, he added. He may not have said the same thing to Chris Daniel, but would have conveyed a similar message.
Ravi Shankar Prasad is forgetting the fact that WhatsApp is only a messaging tool and not a law and order app, which would automatically take care of all land and order problems in the country. Mob violence and lynching, occurring at dangerously high frequency these days, are the manifestation of a break-down in law and order, as repeatedly emphasized by the Supreme Court. The situation is the product of a combination of factors, the responsibility of some of which lies with the government itself. There is no point in blaming anybody else for it. Any such attempt will only be seen as self-deception and diversionary.
Some of the minister’s demands, such as the need for WhatsApp to set up a corporate office in India and the appointment of a grievance officer for better coordination, are perfectly alright. The government obviously feels that the presence of a local office in India would make it easier for the company to be held accountable. But his warning to the company to stop all Fake News is something that is beyond its own capability, although Chris Daniels, according to government sources, agreed to abide by all the demands. With India accounting for over 200 million users, the WhatsApp CEO could not have done anything else.
The messaging app has already enforced certain curbs on content sharing on its platform. These include capping the maximum number of people a message can be forwarded to in one go to five and a label to help users distinguish between personally crafted messages and forwards. It has promised to step up the campaign to educate people on the spread of misinformation through Social Media. But it is doubtful if all these safeguards are adequate to fight the menace of fake news. The company itself is looking for clues on how to tackle the problem and has even sanctioned research grants to social scientists to come up with effective measures to fight misinformation.
Isolating fake news is a highly tedious task as the line demarcating news and fake news is often very thin. Monitoring can also imply the risk of arbitrariness, which could force the message platform to act as a proxy for the government. With privacy concerns occupying centre stage any such move is bound to become controversial. Content mapping is a tool that can act like a double-edged weapon. It can certainly help if applied judiciously; but it is open to extensive abuse.
The country has seen the worst and best use of social media and messaging platforms in recent times. At one end of the spectrum, we have had several incidents in which WhatsApp messages were used to incite violence and spread hatred. Bu in the flood-devastated Kerala, the social media became one of the biggest saviours, connecting people in distress with rescue teams and in reaching out help to completely inundated areas and people with no means of communication.
Social media enthusiasts formed impromptu groups and harnessed the immense potential of their platforms to bring rescuers and the marooned people together. An active volunteer group of 6,000 functioned as the core group, helping government machinery to locate hundreds trapped in the floods and save them. It quickly snowballed into a major operation with a group of tech-savvy members from all over the world, including the USA, the UK and Germany, providing technical support. The group members channelised all SOS messages received through different social media platforms as well as data from a newly-launched government website to various call centres, which forwarded the data to the district control rooms from where the government machinery was attending to distress calls. The rescue parties needed exact locations and the IT members used Google coordinates to mark the locations.
The Kerala operation will remain as one of the most exemplary cases of effectively combining social media with physical infrastructure to seamlessly undertake such a massive rescue and relief endeavour. (IPA Service)
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