Most of us are by now accustomed to receiving jokes and forwards on WhatsApp that have a tendency to get repeated every few months. One such joke, which I must have received at least twice on each of the groups that I am a part of, is as follows.
Martin Luther King once said, “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”
A Punjabi man responded, “O tä theek hai Luther saab, par jana kithé hai?”
The last line when loosely translated, will read as – A Punjabi man responded, “That’s alright! However, where exactly are we headed, Mr. Luther?”
Indeed, Mr. Luther must be turning in his grave at the prospect of responding to innocent questions from unsuspecting Punjabis! And even more so, to his name being invoked by none other than the mighty Mark Zuckerberg to justify Facebook’s position and defend his company against critics who say that the platform has become a vital conduit for the spread of misinformation.
Today, the world finds itself at a very peculiar stage on the crucial matter of balancing free speech and imposing curbs to stop misinformation and hate speech. By no means is this an easy debate and few things need to be kept in mind to find a solution which does not veer towards either extreme.
FB and other social media are replacing traditional sources of news: A study from the Pew Research Center shows that over two thirds of U.S. adults (68%) get their news on social media, even if rarely. And more than 40% of these adults also believe that the news that they get on social media is accurate. The same study further concludes that more Americans get news from social media than from newspapers (see chart).
However, social media platforms such as Facebook are not yet considered as publishers. There are equally strong arguments on whether they should be considered as publishers or not. As they are not creators of news, the social media platforms do want to be categorised as news publishers. However, as the consumers of these platforms treat them as a source of news hence there is compelling reason to treat them as publishers. Additionally, the news industry also claims and rightly so, that advertising dollars are steadily moving from publishing to social media. This fact strengthens the argument that the social media platforms should be made to regulate the content being posted by users.
Proliferation of hate speech and fake news is a reality: There is enough anecdotal evidence to conclude that social media platforms are being used to spread fake news and hate speech. There have been instances where people have even lost their lives due to spread of fake news, such as incorrect news of a gang of child kidnappers that resulted in mob lynching. Politicians using social media platforms to spread misinformation about their opponents are perhaps more common than we would like to admit. The entire US presidential campaign that led to Trump’s victory is under a big cloud of suspicion due to allegations of Russians using social media to influence the results. As this is a well-known fact, I won’t belabor this point any further.
Governments will be forced to put curbs: In September 2019, the Supreme Court of India gave the government three weeks to make recommendations related to use of social media that protect the “sovereignty of the State, privacy of an individual and prevention of illegal activities”. On October 21, 2019, the central government requested the Supreme Court for 3 months to frame rules to regulate hate speech, fake news, defamatory posts and anti-national activities on social media platforms. The social media giants do not have a very good track record as far as self-regulation is concerned. Hence, the writing is on the wall. Sooner or later, various national governments will be forced to come up with regulations to limit the spread of hate speech and fake news.
Balancing free speech and regulating social media is difficult: While there is no running away from the facts that the curbs will come, finding a fine balance is not going to be easy. For one, (especially in India) any sort of restrictions that are imposed on social media content can be misused by those in power to target political opponents. In fact, historically there has been a tendency to misuse the law by those in power. Hence the tough question that the Governments need to find an answer to is, what is the right dose of restriction and where to draw the line. The other important aspect to keep in mind is while the restrictions are important, they should not interfere with the citizens’ right to privacy. Even the Supreme Court has warned against this prospect and hinted that the rules should not compromise the privacy of the common man. However, this is a tough one to crack.
For now, we will have to wait and watch as the situation evolves. However, do keep track of the statements from both sides. Sometimes the well-coached spokespersons have the tendency to provide wholesome entertainment even on the most serious topics. And last but not the least, I hope and pray that Mr. Luther finds peace!