On the push towards censorship on social media

Published : 7 Dec 2011, 03:12 PM
Updated : 7 Dec 2011, 03:12 PM

Recently, the so-called "social media" has created quite a bit of trouble for various governments across the globe. The still on-going "Arab Spring" in the Middle East and the "Occupy Movements" around the world are testament to such "trouble" created and nurtured by the social media. Very recently, the Indian government has summoned executives of YouTube, Facebook, and Google to vent the government's dissatisfaction over how the users are posting troubling contents. Let's talk about why the social media is causing such "trouble" and what lies ahead for the social media users.

A distinct capability of the social media is that it "walks" to you; rather than you having to reach out for it. Friends share their views or react to an incidence in their Facebook status or Twitter twit. Instantly, other friends are made aware of the incidence and their associated views. For better or for worse, such exchange formulates public opinions faster than any other channel the mankind has ever seen before. Traditional news simply does not have the "walking" capabilities. It only reaches the person who is "tuning in".

By design, the social media is an "editor-less" process. People create whatever they like and say however they want. There are no red-ink or blue-pencil. This is the beauty of the social media that engages billions of users the world over. It is still true though, for objective news verification, people still trust edited outlets like the traditional newspaper or electronic broadcast more than the unedited social media. However, when it comes to "views", people are increasingly turning to the unedited blogs or Twits or YouTube videos.

For example, let's say there is a rumour of riots in the city streets. People tend to prefer the traditional news media for confirmation on such an event. However, when it comes to finding "views" or the "cause" of the event, people rejoice reading the social media or blog posts from those who were close to it.

In general, once a "news" is confirmed by the traditional news media, "views" is the thing that the readers care about. And it is the "views" where the social media triumphs traditional "news" outlets.

Readers' increasing access to "views" over "news" is what perhaps is bothering the governments across the globe. In a latest move, India has urged social network companies like Facebook, Twitter, Google and others to remove offensive materials from their sites which are out of line with the "sensitivities" and "norms" of the country. To embolden the Indian government's point, their telecoms and information technology minister Kapil Sibal stated that some of the images and statements on the social media sites risked fanning tensions in India. The country has a chequered history when it comes to deadly religious violence. However, one can argue that the Indian government's use of such logic is no different than those Arab states' logic behind banning social media with the intention of checking terrorism.

According to The New York Times report, Sibal called the executives complaining about social media posts maligning the ruling Congress Party chief Sonia Gandhi and the Gandhi family in general. Indian government told the companies that such content is "unacceptable". The current Congress led Indian government, for obvious reasons, is hyper sensitive to the Gandhi family and its legacy.

According to bdnews24 reports, the Sibal said, "We have to take care of the sensibilities of our people, we have to protect their sensibilities. Our cultural ethos is very important to us." He further mentioned about potential future guidelines for action against companies who do not respond to the government's requests on such matters. "We'll certainly evolve guidelines to ensure that such blasphemous material is not part of content on any platform," the minister vented.

The choice of words by the minister is interesting. "Blasphemy" is a word with deep roots within the religious context. Criticising a public figure or family is hardly close to blasphemy. This logic, however, does not apply to the Indian subcontinent. Here we have no short-supply of deceased political leaders who have turned into God-like immortals upon death. Criticising these immortals is, curiously, "blasphemous".

The Indian government played a time-proven trick when they used the words "sensitivities" and "cultural ethos". These words are vague and are very easy to manipulate by whichever government is in power. These are "highly technical" words that the politicians use to basically say, "Please do not write against our interests".

The current Bangladeshi government is very much in harmony with the Congress-led Indian government. It will not be surprising to see similar directions coming from the Bangladeshi government soon. There are indeed websites and Facebook pages that are not generous to the "sensitivities" of the Bangladeshi government. The government may also find issues with social media posts that are not "sensitive to", or even "blasphemous" towards the "legacies" that they care. In the recent past, we have already witnessed various "situations" involving electronic and print media personnel vs. authorities in Bangladesh.

So far the only hope that the freedom loving participants of the social media have is that the companies like Google, Twitter or Facebook are global companies. Their sites are heavily used by users around the world. These companies simply cannot monitor government mandated "sensitivities" and "norms" of all the countries in the world. For their part, these companies have policies of removing content that, among other things, violate copyrights, incite violence or hatred, or distribute nudity. Apart from these acts of violation, most other text or video posting is allowed. This does not, however, mean that we can stay happy thinking that these companies will simply not "co-operate" with any additional government "guidance".

Recently there are instances where these companies have started to "comply" with government requests for access to "private communications" among users in the social media. For example, "Research in Motion" (RIM), the manufacturer of Blackberry devices, have agreed to provide access to its instant messaging service to government agencies in various countries including India. Requests for user IP addresses and other geographic tracking requests by government agencies are common to these companies these days. Many of these requests are entertained. This means content producers can hardly expect "privacy" from the government authorities in the social media in future.

We need to remember that the social media companies are money making machines. They do not want to lose access to populous markets like India. Billions of marketing dollars are sitting there. Only by staying somewhat in compliance with the "sensitivities" of the local governments, these companies can maximise their profits in these markets.

For many of these companies, humans are simply "markets" first, "people" later. We can only pray that the human participants of the social media can survive stronger and longer than the companies, governments, and the markets combined.

Shafquat Rabbee is a freelance contributor from New York, USA.

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher