Many countries are facing consequences of the problems that have emerged with the popularity and reach of social media. The problem with social media is while fake news spreads rapidly and catches on, the information correcting or countering it doesn’t, observes Kriti Kalra and traces how use and abuse of social media have become an integral part of protests.
In early May 2021, immediately after the Assembly elections, the West Bengal CID tweeted a video link where a user had claimed that a man was assaulted with stones and sticks. The agency further mentioned that the video was, in fact, from Brazil and at least three years old. The fact that the video was tweeted first by a ‘verified’ user made things even worse in an already volatile political atmosphere in West Bengal where violence was ripe after the election results were announced.
West Bengal police identified and got hundreds of fake posts deleted from social media platforms that were spreading fake news about post-poll violence in the state. Perpetrated by mischievous elements on both sides of the spectrum, the fake content was responsible for clashes between rival groups, attacks and more. The situation in West Bengal is just the tip of the iceberg of the barrage of problems that come with the anonymity and the unabated ‘freedom’ on social media.
Social media triggering unrest
The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests that disrupted peace in the country towards the end of 2019 are living example of how social media can catalyse citizens, for good or for worse, and create ‘dangerous’ situations.
After the Indian government enacted the Citizenship Amendment Bill on 12 December 2019, widespread protests began to simmer in different parts of the country and beyond borders too. The protests were supposedly against the Act and the associated National Register of Citizens (NRC).
Interestingly, it was the ‘use’ and ‘abuse’ of social media that was integral to these protests that lasted for several months. The protests that began in Assam in early December 2019 soon spread to other north-eastern states such as Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura and Delhi among several other Indian states. Soon after, academic campuses became the hot bed of protests. On 15 December 2019, agitated protestors gathered near Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi and Aligarh Muslim University in Uttar Pradesh. At Jamia Millia Islamia, protests broke out and mobs burnt down and ravaged private and public property. Railway stations were vandalised too.
With the reach of smartphones and internet connectivity in every hand, photos and videos from the day were widely circulated across social media platforms by the protestors that included many students. The posts went viral but due to the inability to maintain accuracy, such social media posts fuelled the fire and misled many more into the protests.
Fake news inciting violence
As the protests continued India, particularly Delhi, several fake posts started flooding social media and WhatsApp groups that worsened the volatile situation in Delhi. Fake posts included a picture of ‘a policeman stomping on a student,’ a protestor killed in police firing, a civilian thrashing agitators along with the cops, a video clip of a senior police official asking students to leave the city, etc.
Delhi police took the threat ‘very seriously’ and, for the first time, formed a crack cyber team to nab those ‘creating and spreading instigating content.’
South-East DCP Chinmoy Biswal said, “The emerging rumour machinery aided by information technology has become a big challenge in maintaining law and order. Rumours are always fuelled for vested interests. Those who don’t want peace or want communal tension become hyperactive and misuse the situation.” The DCP explained how a picture of a man in protective gear and plain clothes approaching anti-CAA protestors with a stick went viral on Facebook and Twitter and was being shown as ‘a RSS-ABVP member’. He was, in fact, a Delhi Police constable who was deployed in the area to control the Jamia Milia protestors.
The problem with social media, however, is that fake news spreads very fast but information correcting or countering it doesn’t and that makes fake news very dangerous. The freedom that comes with social media can hurt a person or a nation in more ways than one. Mr Biswal adds, “Our clarification on traditional and social media has not reached every victim of misinformation. Two days after the clarification, a Jamia student came to me and questioned why ABVP guys are included in the force against protesters. I then clarified to him.”
Most countries battling social media scourge
Many countries around the world are facing consequences of the problems that have emerged with the popularity and reach of social media. On 6 January 2021 in the United States, for example, the Capitol in Washington D.C. was stormed during a riot. A mob comprising supporters of the then President Donald Trump went on an attacking spree against the US Congress where a joint session was underway to formalise rival Joe Biden’s election victory.
The protestors and Trump supporters did so in an attempt to overturn Trump’s defeat in the 2020 Presidential elections. During the incident, the rioters vandalised the Capitol for hours. More than 140 people were injured and five died in the protest, the complex was locked down and the lawmakers had to be evacuated.
Soon after the elections, several Facebook groups had mushroomed that were calling out Americans to ‘stop the steal’. The slant echoed Donald Trump’s tweets and posts even prior to the elections where he said that ‘elections would be rigged and there’ll be fraudulent voting this time.’
Although the groups were deleted in time, the seed of anger and dissatisfaction had already been sown among Trump’s supporters.
At a rally earlier that day, Trump had called out to his supporters and said, “Walk down to the Capitol… because you will never take back our country with weakness.”Hours after the speech, thousands of supporters attacked the Capitol and disrupted the constitutional process underway in the Congress.
Too little, too late
Soon after the Capitol attack, YouTube deleted several videos Trump had posted on his channel including that of the rally he addressed earlier that day. In a statement, Google said, “Over the last month, we’ve removed thousands of videos which spread misinformation claiming widespread voter fraud changed the result of the 2020 election, including several videos that President Trump posted on Wednesday to his channel.”
Twitter also blocked Donald Trump’s account for 12 hours and removed three of his tweets including a video on 6 January 2021.President Donald Trump’s Facebook and Instagram accounts were ‘suspended until the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden on 20 January 2021.’ Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said ‘the risk of allowing President Trump to continue to use the platform during this period is simply too great.’ It was a first of its kind move against the head of a state.
Time to ‘check’ social media
The risks that come with the ‘free’or uncontrolled use of social media are far too many. In the last few years, India and other countries have witnessed innumerable instances of mob lynching, attacks, riots that followed someone’s rant or circulation of fake news on social media.
After the Jamia Milia Islamia protest, Delhi Police formed a team to search for key words on social media. According to officials ‘it’s a time consuming process’ where by the time the perpetrators are identified and nabbed, damage is already done.
Social media platforms allow the creation of fake accounts and provide anonymity with utmost east that encourages anti-social elements and those with anti-national agenda to post inflammatory, misleading, vitriolic content, which is difficult to sift out from genuine one, and get away with it.