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Don’t shoot the messenger

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By Anjali Mehta

Since it was introduced to the world in 2009, WhatsApp has become one of the more popular messaging apps with an estimated 1.5 billion users worldwide.
It was acquired by Facebook in 2014, an event which seems to have resulted in a massive spurt in the number of users in India. Currently, there are around 2 million WhatsApp users in India, of which more than 50 per cent are from rural areas.
Recent lynchings of five people suspected to be child-lifters by a mob in Maharashtra were sparked by a rumour circulating on WhatsApp. This generated much debate about this messenger service.
The Indian Electronics and Information Technology ministry asked Facebook Inc (which owns WhatsApp) to find ways by which they can curb transmission of irresponsible messages.
I believe that putting external curbs on this particular medium may not be a sound or practical idea. Here’s why:
To my mind, someone inclined to spread a rumour, create a ruckus or induce a riot, will do so by any means at their disposal. It could be through public or private meetings, sermons, lectures, Facebook and other social media sites, YouTube videos, loudspeakers, pamphlets, in fact anything in the firmament.
Violence has been an integral part of mankind’s existence since millennia. So has gossip. As have rumours. Social media is a fairly recent entrant into the list of human preoccupations.
On the Indian continent we witnessed the carnage of partition with thousands of lynchings. Millions of refugees worldwide will tell you of the atrocities that have been committed on them.
Human greed, intolerance, a lust for power and money and divisiveness are to blame. Social media is merely a communication tool. One does not need mass phone aided mobilisation to lynch a man or even a small group. A few barbaric citizens will suffice.
Humans have been communicating through sign language, through drumbeats in forests and mountains, Morse codes, smoke signals and several other ingenious ways.
How can you prevent human beings from communicating with each other? History is replete with examples of ‘underground’ resistance movements. There was no social media in those days. Decrying WhatsApp will only make users switch to another format.
The app itself is really well designed in that one can share messages, videos, attachments, photos, rendering it quite complete in itself. There is end to end encryption which means that no third person can view a message including the service provider.
There are no distracting advertisements. Being so easy to use makes it an effective communication tool for villagers and an apt app for facilitating a ‘digital India’. It is currently a free service.
There are options to mute or block a number, exit a group, delete a group, delete a message within seconds. It is very self-regulatory. Users can actively choose to ignore or not forward a rabble-rousing message or one can call it out publicly or report Spam.
WhatsApp features allow a large degree of privacy as well as autonomy. It is contemplated that WhatsApp can be a payment portal in the near future as well as a safety app as geographical location is pinpointed.
Attempts to ‘sanitize’ the conversation by having all posts filtered through an administrator on WhatsApp create practical and ethical dilemmas. People would not be able to communicate swiftly and meaningfully in real time as there would be a time lag – related to the availability of the administrator.
The administrators themselves may have personal biases or lack discretion. This post of being an arbiter of conversations, by its very nature would have to perforce be a full time job. If not compensated, the job’s fairly thankless nature would have few takers. The moment it becomes a paid job, it would then be liable to be controlled by those rendering the payment as often happens in the classic editor-owner ideological/ethical clashes of print media.
In the past, an idea was mooted, to hold the group administrator accountable for any inappropriate posts on that group. This suggestion is bizarre because nobody can determine beforehand what is on a person’s mind.
People are invited to a group because they form part of a particular cohort: say people who work together, or have studied together, etc. To try to first filter out who would be welcome in the group based on their leanings and personalities attacks the very foundation of healthy interaction – a multi-faceted, inclusive and rich dialogue.
Moreover, people’s opinions, likes and dislikes change with time. Sometimes, an otherwise very responsible citizen may be unable to maintain their cyber composure under emotional duress. Above all, the truth needs to be told.
It is critical that everyone who has attained adulthood be deemed responsible for their own thoughts and actions. To burden a third party with this responsibility seems to completely absolve the author of an unsuitable post of their duties and instead targets an innocent bystander – administrator/medium instead.
Misuse of social mediums across the board has often resulted in disastrous consequences. Examples include the Blue Whale internet game driving teenagers to suicide, or stalkers and paedophiles on Facebook (using information voluntarily provided by users themselves) or the notorious ‘trolling’ on Twitter.
Recently our own external affairs minister was openly and abusively trolled on Twitter. Astonishingly the government was relatively silent and low key in its defense of their own minister. It was citizens who tried to come to her rescue.
In these times, when a large section of the print and TV media is perceived by many to be deeply influenced by the government, the viability of alternate channels of communication between citizens is imperative. WhatsApp has an important role to play.
Though there are many fabricated videos which aim to spread hate or falsely discredit someone, some such videos are deliberately introduced to obfuscate things and discredit the medium itself. To make people doubt the validity of some of the horrific but true things they see and prevent them from reporting it or taking useful action.
To counteract this trend, there are now helpful tutorials available which educate people on how to spot a doctored video. The bottom line remains that individuals must have the self-discipline to not share a video which is not from a trusted source or which contains inflammatory material.
There are already reporting methods in place to report cyber abuse or misuse of cyberspace though guidelines can be made more clear-cut. One can highlight it electronically to the office of the app provider as well as register a FIR with the cybercrime units of local police stations.
The company office can debar the accused individual from using this medium. The company often needs to do a balancing act between enabling freedom of speech and increasing user base versus conscience and social responsibility.
The company can further report them to police officials. The local police can apply any section of the Indian penal Code as relevant and have the person booked.
In conclusion, people themselves should show a low level of tolerance for divisive or incendiary posts on WhatsApp, calling out the person or reporting them to authorities.
We can come to each other’s rescue on any medium when someone is being bullied, or ourselves attempt to combat and thwart rumour mongering by ignorant or ill motivated people. Try as we may, if we are to be intellectually honest, we cannot pass the buck for our shortcomings onto a messaging app.