Rajat Sharma

How conspirators are misusing social media in India

It’s true social media has become an indispensable part of our daily life. From personal life to public life, from governance to international issues, from elections to selections, from marketing to opinion making, social media has become an important tool.

rajat sir2Social media outlets like Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter have nowadays become easy tools for some people to carry out conspiracies. Some become detectives, some have become self-appointed guardians of Hindus, some project themselves as protectors of Muslims. More often social media is used to spread religious and regional hatred in order to foment violence. Readers are incited by showing partly true, partly false videos or texts.

It’s true social media has become an indispensable part of our daily life. From personal life to public life, from governance to international issues, from elections to selections, from marketing to opinion making, social media has become an important tool. Since verification methods hardly exist in social media, texts, images and videos are taken at face value, with nobody the wiser about whether they are true or false. Social media has thus become a den of conspiracies.

On Monday, a painting went viral showing Lord Krishna with bikini-clad beauties, the painter was a Muslim, Ikram Husain, and this name was prominently displayed to incite feelings of Hindus, particularly devotees of Lord Krishna. ISKCON demanded action. Later, Assam Police and the Assam deputy chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma revealed that the objectionable painting was displayed at an exhibition in 2015, it was taken down from Guwahati Art Gallery and the painter was arrested. The painting was seized by police. All in all, it was packaging of old wine in a new bottle on social media, and the intent was obvious.

Another video went viral on Monday, showing a burqa-clad Muslim lady throwing away statues of Lord Ganesha from a shelf and breaking them into pieces inside a departmental store. It was claimed on social media that the incident happened in India, but on verification it was found that the video was from Bahrain. The Interior Ministry of Bahrain said, the “capital police in Manama took legal action against the woman, 54, for damaging a shop in Juffair and defaming a sect and its rituals”. The matter has been referred to Public Prosecution.

This year Ganesha Chaturthi falls on August 22, and the video was deliberately circulated to incite religious feelings before the festival.

Last week, an objectionable comment was made about Prophet Mohammed on Facebook, it was immediately circulated on WhatsApp and crowds ransacked police stations and set fire to vehicles. Three persons died in the firing and more than 50 people were injured in Bengaluru.

On Sunday, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi alleged that Facebook and WhatsApp are being controlled by BJP and RSS. “They spread fake news and hatred through it and use it to influence the electorate. Finally, the American media has come out with the truth about Facebook,” Gandhi tweeted.

Rahul Gandhi was referring to an article in ‘Wall Street Journal’ in which it was alleged that Facebook was going easy on hate speeches by members of ruling BJP. The Wall Street Journal report cited interviews with unnamed Facebook insiders to claim that the senior India Policy executive of Facebook, Ankhi Das, intervened in internal content reviewing processes to stop a ban on a BJP MLA in Telangana, who had made communally charged posts targeting Muslim community.

The Wall Street Journal report alleged that Ankhi Das told staff members that punishing violations by politicians from BJP would damage Facebook’s business prospects in India. The Congress promptly demanded a joint parliamentary committee probe into this matter.

BJP denied the allegation and said Congress leaders should better look within. Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad hit back at Rahul Gandhi and said, “Losers who cannot influence people even in their own party keep cribbing that the entire world is controlled by BJP & RSS. You were caught red-handed in alliance with Cambridge Analytica & Facebook to weaponize data before the elections & now have the gall to question us.”

Soon after, social media was flooded with trolls targeting Ankhi Das, Public Policy director for India, South and Central Asia, and a torrent of abuses and threats followed. On Sunday, Ankhi Das complained to Delhi Police citing “violent (online) threats to life and body”. Police have registered a case and the cyber unit has begun its probe.

Ankhi Das has named some Facebook and Twitter accounts, from where she had been receiving violent threats since Friday evening and is “extremely disturbed” by relentless harassment meted out to her. Ankhi Das is Public Policy director of Facebook since 2011. She is not a public figure but is part of Mark Zuckerberg’s team. A 2014 picture of Ankhi Das with Prime Minister Modi is being circulated on social media. This picture was taken during Mark Zuckerberg’s meeting with Modi.

Facebook had to issue a clarification saying it does not discriminate on the basis of political ideology. “We prohibit hate speech and content that incites violence and we enforce these policies globally without regard to anyone’s political position or party affiliation. While we know there is more to do, we’re making progress on enforcement and conducting regular audits of our process to ensure fairness and accuracy,” said Facebook.

India today has more than 29 crore Facebook users. USA comes second with 19 crore users, followed by Indonesia and Brazil. The Wall Street Journal article, cited by Rahul Gandhi, also mentions that it was in 2016, during Modi’s rule, that Facebook was disallowed by the Indian government to launch a free telecom service. Similarly, WhatsApp, a Facebook affiliate, wants to launch a payment gateway in India, but its request is pending since last two years. Had Facebook been favouring the BJP and Modi government, it would have got these approvals by now, but this did not happen.

I understand the compulsions of Congress party. On social media, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the most popular political leader in the world. Modi has 4.62 crore Facebook followers, followed by US President Donald Trump (3.07 crore). Rahul Gandhi has 37.5 lakh Facebook followers, meaning Modi has 14 times more followers than Rahul’s.

Like Facebook, Modi also dominates Twitter. Modi has 6 crore 11 lakh followers on Twitter, while Rahul Gandhi has 1 crore 56 lakh followers, meaning Modi has four times more followers than Rahul on Twitter.

In spite of his lesser number of followers, Rahul depends heavily on social media. All of you must have noticed that he posts one tweet daily in the morning posing a question to Modi. BJP leaders point out that Mark Zuckerberg had himself said that it was Kapil Mishra’s comments that incited communal riots in Delhi, but he never commented on Sonia Gandhi’s ‘aar-paar ki ladhai’.

BJP leaders also point out that there are thousands of posts on Facebook denigrating and insulting Hindu gods and goddesses, thousands of posts using abuses and threats to Prime Minister Modi. On Monday, I noticed an image of Modi holding a Pakistani flag in his hand on Facebook. But Congress leaders never raised such issues. If they have valid reasons for objections, they have to be fair and even-handed. Policy against hate speeches and statements must be applicable to all.

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