As the Indian business media is abuzz with Mindtree takeover by L&T, airlines crisis and Essar Steel insolvency process, there are far greater issues that took shook the world last week – the New Zealand terror attack that killed 49 and social media played a major role.
This obviously is not an isolated incident, at least not in India. Of late, social media is being used as a platform for spreading hate. There have been numerous instances where social media, messaging platform WhatsApp in particular, has been responsible for inciting violence and in many cases death.
Recently after the Pulwama attack, Karachi Bakery in Bengaluru was attacked just for having the name Karachi, similar to the name a city in Pakistan. The owners had to cover up the name and send out a statement explaining that the bakery was started by Khanchand Ramnani and was indeed an Indian company. It had nothing to do with Pakistan, the statement emphasised.
With elections looming, there is a palpable fear that there could be more violence and there is not enough done about it by the technology majors.
Yes, I know. It is not a genius discovery. For a fact to be so well known and yet so little being done about it seriously says a lot about how we are tackling these issues.But if there is any good time to actually do something about it, it is now.
In the New Zealand terror attack on March 15 on two mosques that killed 49 people and injured 20, the 28-year-old Australian perpetrator Brenton Tarrant posted his intentions online the previous day of the attack.
According to the report by The Atlantic, prior to the attack, Tarrant posted links to a 74-page manifesto ‘The Great Replacement’ that blamed immigrants for displacement of whites in Oceania and elsewhere on Twitter and anonymous-troll message board 8chan. He also did a live stream of one of the attacks on Facebook.
One would have thought that the social media majors Facebook and Twitter would take notice and take it down sooner. But that was not what happened. Facebook pulled down Tarrant’s profiles and the video, but only after New Zealand police brought the live stream to the company’s attention. This is the platform that blocks users for political commentary without giving them a reason. If they do, it is probably along the lines that the post has violated Facebook’s policy (mostly useless going by the seriousness of the issue).
Twitter too took its time to suspend Tarrant’s account. You would do well to remember that recently Twitter suspended journalist Barkha Dutt’s account after she posted her account of online sexual abuse, including the picture of penis that was sent to her, because it violated Twitter’s policy.
For all the swiftness, the damage was already done by the time the world took notice. It makes one think that these technology giants has misplaced priorities.
Coming back to India, not a day goes by when my WhatsApp feed has at least one or two of right-wing extremist messages under the cloak of nationalism.
With elections approaching the rate at which polarised messages are being forwarded has only increased. In India, WhatsApp has sort of become a breeding ground for such messages despite the number of forwards restricted to five.
Now we have Chinese social media apps such as TikTok, which has a large regional population and are being used to spread hatred and fake news.
With millions of users on these platforms posting millions of messages, what can the government or social media platform possibly do? Where does onus fall?
Technology majors, of course, have a big part to play. It made the spread of hate message a lot faster in the connected world. They need to do a lot more than put a restriction on the number of forwards.
But until then, if I may borrow the quote from The Atlantic, the internet is a Pandora’s box that never had a lid. It is may be too late and probably impossible to force it to close down.