Where to draw the line between free speech and hate speech?
On a cold winter day in February 2020, BJP leader and turncoat politician Kapil Mishra tweeted a video, asking his followers to "prevent another Shaheen Bagh," referring to the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 demonstrations that were being held in Shaheen Bagh of Delhi since December 15, 2019. Prior to this, Mishra threatened the protesters during a rally near Jaffrabad metro station, saying that he would take matters into his own hands if the police failed to disperse them. What followed was one of the bloodiest chapters of modern-day Indian politics: the 2020 Delhi riots, which led to the killing of more than 40 people, mostly Muslims.
Earlier in January this year, Twitter and Facebook had to ban the account of Donald Trump after his provocative social media posts further fuelled the attack on the US Capitol, which initially started as a result of Trump's instigating speech towards his predominantly white supremacist followers after losing the US presidential election to Joe Biden. In a statement, Twitter said, "After assessing the language in these Tweets against our Glorification of Violence policy, we have determined that these Tweets are in violation of the Glorification of Violence Policy and the user @realDonaldTrump should be immediately permanently suspended from the service."
Twitter also banned the accounts of former Trump associates Sidney Powell and Michael Flynn for promoting far-right conspiracy theories.
In recent days, we have seen a surge in violence globally—often communal and political—incited by vested quarters through social media. Even in Bangladesh, during the recent Durga Puja celebrations—one of the biggest religious festivals in the country—communal violence erupted after vested quarters posted false, staged, misleading and provocative content on social media. The attacks continued for days, spanning the length and breadth of the country.
The initial incident took place in Cumilla, where a man made a Facebook live post, accusing the Hindu community of desecrating the Quran at a puja mandap. Early on the morning of October 13, police received a call from Ekram Hossain regarding the alleged defamation of the Quran. After police arrived at the spot—Nanua Dighir Par puja mandap—around 7:30am, a man named Foyez Ahmed started making a Facebook live video, showing the OC, Anwarul Azim, and urging people to rise up against the defamatory act.
The video started gaining traction with increased views and shares, and by 8am there was a throng of people at the spot. By 9am, there were even more people. They all sought revenge. The police and local administration could not do much to contain the swelling crowd. What followed was a brutal onslaught on the Hindu community.
While the government now needs to take a hard look at the context of the attacks, the factors that enabled it, and the reasons why the government and its intelligence agencies failed to take preventive measures, or even why the curative actions took so long to quell the violence, it also needs to look at how social media is being misused by vested quarters to stoke communal violence in the country.
An investigative report published by The Daily Star on October 22 revealed that, as of the publication of the report, over 300 provocative videos were available on various YouTube channels—most of them uploaded within hours of the October 13 attacks. And all of these videos feature highly loaded and divisive messages. They are filled with hate speech, aimed at instigating the viewers—by appealing to their religious sentiments—to act against the Hindu community. Facebook was also found to be filled with inflammatory content against the minority community.
While the government should not resort to an overall internet blackout or indiscriminate banning of social media platforms, it needs to work on formulating a comprehensive social media policy that can tackle their unchecked misuse, while ensuring people's fundamental right to freedom of speech at the same time.
The government currently has the Digital Security Act (DSA) in place, but the DSA or similar draconian laws cannot be a solution to this problem. These are highly controversial laws that verge on the suppression of freedom of speech, and more than helping curb the ever-spiralling infodemic, these laws are rather used selectively and to serve the interests of powerful quarters.
What we need right now is a holistic policy and an environment that takes into account fact-checking, social media platform verification and authentication, and social media usage literacy and etiquettes, among other mechanisms, to counter the spread of disinformation, fake news and loaded content.
In a country like Bangladesh where people with limited literacy on safe internet usage have easy access to the internet, the users need to be adequately educated so that they can use social media platforms in a responsible manner.
The government should also scrutinise the social media accounts and platforms that are spreading harmful and divisive content, understand if these are premeditated and synchronised, identify the actors behind them, and take appropriate action to neutralise them. The accounts that have intentionally inflamed violence in the past should also be banned, and the perpetrators should be held accountable for their deeds.
The social media platforms also need to be much more proactive in screening the content that they allow to circulate on their sites. Facebook has recently come under fire after internal documents and reports revealed that the company failed to curb divisive, hate-filled content directed at the Muslim community in India. And the build-up of such content, it has been reported, might have played a role in inflaming the 2020 Delhi riots.
With regard to these allegations, in a statement to the Associated Press, Facebook said the platform had "invested significantly in technology to find hate speech in various languages, including Hindi and Bengali," which, in 2021, reduced "the amount of hate speech that people see by half." However, more needs to be done to ensure that provocative content are screened, flagged and removed on time, along with close monitoring of groups and platforms that have a tendency to promote fake information and disinformation.
Similarly, people in general need to be more aware of the facts and be responsible in consuming, engaging with and sharing such content on social media. Rather than blindly believing every bit of information that is out there on social media, people should check for content validated by the news media.
And the government should encourage and promote press freedom in order to be able to tackle the problem of disinformation. Unless there is a free flow of credible information from the press, the risk of people resorting to social media to quench their thirst for news and information will remain. Stringent government regulation on social media platforms, which can at times infringe on people's right to free speech, is a highly undesirable scenario, and everyone, including the social media users, must do their part to avoid such a situation.
While the government needs to create an ecosystem that promotes healthy usage of social media, the platforms themselves must focus on greater vigilance with regard to what messages are being circulated on their sites. And people should look to the news media as a source of information, rather than dubious social media content. To ensure productive social media engagement, the responsibility falls on all of us, on what we choose to consume, and on where we draw the line.
Tasneem Tayeb is a columnist for The Daily Star.
Her Twitter handle is @tasneem_tayeb