Toe the line

SOCIAL media was celebrated as an equalising force that strengthened democracy and empowered citizens, especially from marginalised groups, to have a voice and a tool that expanded accountability.

Whereas most of this remains true, actors that wield power in society such as state institutions and governments have also started operating on social media employing various methods to disseminate information. It is a welcome step for government officials to be present online, make statements, defend their policies and interact with citizens. However, this has also meant that political discussions have become increasingly polarised, oppressed minority groups have been gaslighted, and the notion of ‘fake news’ has been weaponised against the press that does not toe the state narrative.

Disinformation, defined as false information intended to mislead, has become more sophisticated on social media, with states being a major party to propagating it. The Cambridge Analytica leaks exposed how social media users’ data was sold to PR agencies by third-party apps and used to manipulate voter behaviour in the 2016 US election.

A recent probe by Facebook and the Stanford Internet Observatory exposed a Pakistan-based network dedicated to silencing critics of state policies through mass reporting. This research showed a network of hundreds of fake accounts on Facebook and Instagram dedicated to posting propaganda against state critics, coordinating mass reporting to silence critical voices, and celebrating such silencing if their attempts were successful. Fake groups were created to rope in Indian military personnel and spy on them. Such accounts and groups were taken down by Facebook for violating the platform’s community standards.

It is routine for activists, journalists and politicians to complain of their social media accounts being suspended, locked or disabled due to mass reporting by coordinated networks. This report only shows the tip of the iceberg of mass coordinated attempts to silence dissenting voices on the internet here. Coordinated campaigns often led through abusive hashtags against dissenting activists and journalists doing their job of reporting facts and questioning policies are routine on social media. Women tend to be targeted particularly violently, with sexualised lewd comments and threats.

Instead of outright condemnation of abuse, officials including ministers with a following numbering in the millions question the credibility of the targets of attack and deflect from complaints. The agenda seems to be to discredit the press and maintain a monopoly over information on social media.

Whereas there is merit in questioning the occasional misreporting of facts, labelling journalists as ‘not neutral’ when they question the government — something that is the press’s job — is routine, and not in line with democratic practices. Ministers and government officials need a reminder of their oath to the Constitution, in which Article 19 not only guarantees the right to freedom of speech but also press freedom, and Article 19-A guarantees the right to information. This means that government officials must also treat all media personnel equally rather than being selective about who they are going to provide information of public importance to.

This also means that journalists’ safety must be protected. Recent online campaigns and enforced disappearances of media workers are unacceptable. The draft journalist protection bill prepared by the Ministry of Human Rights must be deliberated upon on an urgent basis, and its implementation overseen by parliament to ensure that tactics threatening journalists end effectively.

A robust code of conduct for social media for all political parties and the government is also urgently required, with clear responsibilities outlined in the profiles of accounts. Leaders of political parties and government officials should lead by example and measure their words carefully as their behaviour has a trickle-down effect on how the support base abuses and attacks.

Further, there must be investigation of reports of coordinated inauthentic behaviour linked to state officials, with the Stanford report being the second linking Pakistani state-linked accounts to such behaviour in the past two years. This causes embarrassment internationally as to supposedly clever tricks being exposed publicly. It also puts into question the manner in which taxpayer money is wasted in the state apparatus attacking its own citizens through disinformation and inauthentic behaviour. Social media companies must also implement their policies in an equitable manner in light of concerning reports by the media about Facebook in India allowing hate speech to remain up due to their officials’ political leanings.

Let us be a society that engages in civil dialogue to solve issues rather than a lynch mob that obfuscates attempts to progress.

The article was originally published in Dawn on September 13, 2020. 

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