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According to a report, there are about 4.55 billion social media users which means about 58% of the global population now uses social media. The advent of digitalisation gave birth to social media. While there are several boxes to mark its advantages, social media is mired with a myriad of problems as well. With such high user percentage, social media in itself can be understood as a parallel world that has palpable effects in the real world. The invention of social media, therefore, cannot be overlooked merely as a technological invention.
The challenges posed by social media have become characteristic of the 21st century. From enabling spread of misinformation, undermining democratic structures to adversely affecting mental health and leading to behavioural changes at mass levels; social media can be held responsible for a plethora of problems that plague the society currently.
One such issue that has come to acquire the centre stage in the global discourse is the role of social media in polarising societies by not just enabling hate but also by becoming a breeding ground for it. Social media, today is acting as a catalyst in deepening the socio-political divide and impacts the trends in hate crimes around the world which echo changes in the political climate. As more and more people have moved to online spaces, people that hold racist, communalist and sectarian ideologies have found opportunities to propagate their views without hindrance.
The propagation of hate and bigotry on social media is not an isolated case of one country or two, rather violence attributed to online hate speech has increased worldwide. In India, as has been the case in many other countries, hate speech has resulted in radicalisation of the masses. As younger generations born at the cusp of the digital revolution come of age, the exposure to unrestrained and unchecked content on social media acts as poison.
With an exposure to an almost constant stream of information which they may not have the critical skills to filter and navigate, youngsters are more prone to getting involved in not just propagating hate content but also get involved in criminal activities. The recent case of the creation of apps called ‘Sulli Deals’ and ‘Bulli Bai’ that were setting Muslim women for ‘auction’, highlights how misogyny and Islamophobia has penetrated among the Indian youngsters. The age of the creators of these apps ranges between 18 and 25.
Thanks to the swift action by the Mumbai Police, Vishal Jha, Shweta Singh, Mayank Rawal, and Niraj Bishnoi were arrested for creating the ‘Bulli Bai’ app. The App that ‘auctioned’ hundreds of Muslim women journalists, activists, and others including the 52-year-old mother of missing JNU student Najeeb Jung. Meanwhile, the Special Cell of the Delhi Police also arrested 25-years-old Aumkareshwar Thakur from Indore who allegedly created the ‘Sulli Deals’ mobile application.
Shweta Singh, the 18-year-old woman from Uttarakhand arrested for her alleged association with the Bulli Bai app, has been described as a “Religious fanatic”, highly active on social media.The involvement of these youngsters in the creation of a nefarious app targeting Muslim women has revealed that all of them were active on social media and used to regularly post derogatory content against minorities. Who used to fund them, who used to mentor them, are some important aspects that a fair investigation is bound to lay bare.
The case of the online ‘auction’ of Muslim women by youngsters influenced by the right wing ideology has made national and international headlines. The case has brought attention to the proliferation of bigotry among the younger generations facilitated by social media in India, a fact which remained unsuspected till now. This has led to many worried parents across India passing sleepless nights as their wards indulge in communal violence, and end up behind bars, with sealed careers for life. Most parents when spoken to, blamed the Indian polity, irrespective of party affiliations, for putting the entire generation at risk. Some even pointed out to the long list of key politicians in the govt sending their own offsprings abroad and away from harm’s way, while shutting off the likes of Shweta Singh from ever aspiring for global careers, in their lifetimes.
The case has brought attention to the proliferation of bigotry among the younger generations facilitated by social media in India, a fact which remained unsuspected till now.
Besides providing a platform for spreading communal hatred, social media sites like Twitter, Facebook and the ilk have also been linked with propagating many other regressive notions of racism, casteism, sexism etc. even though inadvertently as claimed by the behemoths. Hundreds of pages, groups and handles on these platforms actively share content that discriminates either on the basis on castes, gender or race. Cyber harassment has become rampant and women become especially vulnerable to online abuse.
Rape threats, death threats, use of abusive language are a daily phenomenon on social media. Not even celebrity figures are spared, in fact, a wider audience base makes them more prone to such online experiences. Last year in October, when India lost to Pakistan in T20 World Cup, Indian Cricket captain Virat Kohli was on the receiving end for coming out in support of his teammate Mohammed Shami over his religion. A man from Hyderabad had threatened him online that he will rape his 9 month old daughter.
It has been widely noted that one of the main reasons why online abuse and hate speech is so rampant is because it allows individuals to stay behind a screen providing anonymity. Sitting behind a screen with no fear of facing consequences is what makes posting hate content so easy.
The Design Of Social Media And Impunity
When considering the spread of hate speech and bigotry on social media, its pertinent to point that social media by design has become a tool for it. It thrives on sensationalism and thus hate, bigotry are not mere outcomes of this design but also its fuel. In view of this understanding, it’s futile to expect the tech giants to take concrete actions to stop the hate.
User discretion, very evidently, cannot be trusted. The only respite one can think of is building a regulated mechanism for curbing hate speech online and demanding strict consequences against individuals misusing the affordances of social media. However, some countries have so far practically done little to stand up to this need.
The ‘Sulli Deals’ case came to light on May 13 last year but despite wide outrage on social media, not much was apparently done by the authorities to identify and arrest the culprits behind the crime. Having gone scot free and emboldened by successfully hoodwinking and outsmarting the investigative agencies, the criminals again dared the administration yet again. A similar incident in the form of ‘Bulli Bai’ was thus repeated within 7 months of the first incident.
Similarly, in a recent incident, Punjabis and Sikhs were targeted online. Threats of genocide and a ‘repeat of 1984’ (Sikh massacre) were freely made, post Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Safety Breach’ in Punjab. This too has largely gone by without any significant action or arrests. An action, that would have sent a ‘no nuisance’ or ‘no hate’ message to the criminal minded in the society at large.
It’s the impunity that the online harassers take for granted and this acts as an encouragement for repetition of such behaviours.
According to UNESCO, ending impunity to online hate crimes is crucial to deterring propagation of hate and bigotry.
Stern actions and the kind of initiative and lead taken by the Mumbai Police to bring the culprits to justice within a matter of days seem to go a long way in discouraging criminal minds from turning full bloom. This also helps soothe the psyche of worried parents who consider such prompt acts by the police as a welcome gesture. More so as it eventually aids the much needed reform in the society that is bound to discourage the young and impressionable minds from taking to acts of bigotry and crime.
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