What should social media platforms be — passive bulletin boards or arbiters of truth? Mired in unresolved debates on ethicality and public morality for long, the question gets a fresh lease of life after US President Donald Trump’s executive order making social media companies accountable for what users post. The circumstances of Trump’s face-off with Twitter has a tinge of irony though. It is the same social media that served as a force-multiplier in his presidential campaign in 2016, making him the overwhelmingly popular choice for the top job.
Why are we discussing Trump and Twitter in Corona Diaries? Because the current debate has wider ramification, and it involves us all. In the time of crisis such as a pandemic, it is important that we understand that in this age of free communication red lines are relevant. We ought to know where freedom ends and responsibility begins.
Before we proceed, a brief backgrounder to the ongoing confrontation. Twitter recently flagged the fact-check label on two of Trump’s posts which suggested that the voting-by-mail, equivalent to our postal votes, was exposed to the risk of fraud. Politically loaded, his tweets went beyond insinuation. It was a straightforward accusation of electoral fraudulence, not supported by evidence. After Twitter’s action, the president passed the order doing away with the legal provision that offered legal immunity to social media players for the content posted. They can be sued for defamatory content now.
The order, if it passes legal scrutiny, would mean each post among billions would have to pass through several filters, an expensive proposition for even the behemoths in the business. When internal censorship begins, it also means social media firms take a subjective position on issues or events and treat posts from that perspective. This would kill social media as a space for free opinions and expression; the ultimate platform for individual liberty.
Experts have been grappling with this problem for some time now and a conclusion is elusive. We know social media can be truly unruly, lawless, chaotic and dangerous space given its susceptibility to manipulation. Information can be controlled, manipulated and used for cynical ends with a degree of planning and organisation. Lies catering to negative human emotions stand a greater chance of spreading faster on social media than the truth. Smart political parties have been using this to their advantage for some time now. In India, while the whole nation was busy fighting the novel coronavirus, we had several groups of people using social media to fan communal hatred, anti-migrant sentiments and just plain misinformation on every topic.
However, it is still a place where the other view can find a place and make itself heard. It is inherently democratic, in spirit at least. It mirrors the normal chaos in a democracy in many ways. When governments start questioning the legality of content or parent firms starts censoring it, social media loses its character. Trump, observers say, amplifies the ugliness of the medium through his frequent reckless and banal posts but he could be doing worse by forcing social media’s shift from platform to the publisher.
Can or should social media content be subject to control? Like we mentioned earlier, it boils down to freedom versus responsibility. It also is about the criticality of information as a power resource. One who controls information controls power.
The former shapes public perception, which is why we notice the governments world over seeking to control media outlets. On this bandwagon rides misinformation campaigns and the art of spin-doctoring. Social media, with its wide reach and ability to generate quick reactions, is thus a platform all want to capture.
However, it is not only the political class which has been misusing the new media, but there have also been allegations of social media houses themselves manipulating the platform to influence electoral outcomes in countries.
At the level of citizens and ordinary users, it is not only about information but also about correct information. Since they are the publishers and disseminators of content, the responsibility for correct information lies solely with them. This is where redlines come in.
In the still-unfolding tragic pandemic story, the mutated virus is the chief villain. On social media, the virus takes the shape of publishers of misinformation, which goes by the generic name ‘fake news’. Their act is deliberate, calculated for impact. The fake news industry was on steroids soon after the Delhi Markaz developments. We had fake videos being circulated with the specific aim to create ill-will between communities. The huge gathering of migrant workers at Bandra station in Mumbai led to the next burst of fake videos and posts, followed by the Palghar incident.
The police, news reports say, registered more than 250 cases against people on the charge of spreading fake news in mid-April. The lies of most of the videos and posts were exposed by fact-checkers. News outlets which went ballistic over the videos, creating a lot of heat and noise, conveniently ignored the findings of fact-checkers. From the speed at which they appeared on social media, it was clear they were not innocent mistakes by the creators. A lot of earlier planning and preparation went into the posts. They were released on the right occasion. The virus on social media is always active, waiting for the right time to strike. Its intention is malicious all the time.
Viruses need spreaders. All of us, whether intentional or not, belong to this category. The virus on the social media feeds on our negative emotions such as anger towards and suspicion of others. It heightens our sense of distrust, turning it into hate, and goads us to project it onto people we dislike. Negative news impacts the human mind more than positive news and it travels much faster. The publishers of doctored need are aware of it; thus they only have to push their goods to us at the right time.
We forward such posts because they are in sync with our negative sentiments or as a matter of habit. In either case, we are culpable of spreading misinformation and playing to the script of vested interests. In an earlier column, we had mentioned how the social media anger in Odisha shifted from Delhi Markaz attendees to returnees from West Bengal to migrants from Surat to migrants in general. We had contrarian views with a more sympathetic understanding of the matter too. But they were easily overwhelmed. Superspreaders had done their job.
Amid furious forwarding, how does the sense of responsibility fit in? Perhaps with basic questions that separate the truth from lies: Does it tell me the truth or is it an attempt to manipulate me? What is the source of the video or claim made in the text posts? How come the timing is so perfect? What do fact-checkers say? Most of the videos circulated online after Delhi Markaz were found to be fake. Some dated years back and a few didn’t take place in India, according to media reports. Since there are firms looking into the veracity of online content, a bit of patience before forwarding would help.
At some point, social media users need to understand that spreading hateful content serves no positive goal. They can only cause bad-blood and violence, and destroy the social capital essential for diverse societies like us need to survive. Finally, the habit does not make them look intelligent, it only makes the ugly and crude dimension to their personality more pronounced.
There can be laws enforcing redline. But those will be at the cost of freedom. All countries would be watching the results of Trump’s move with interest. In India, social media users should be careful; social media may change forever.