The Age of Misinformation and Malice: Who does the Internet serve?

The Age of Misinformation and Malice: Who does the Internet serve?
Image Source: Komei and Associates

In his bestseller Homo Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari explains how gossiping is a fundamental part of human development in terms of communication and played an important part in the evolution of society. No community would be able to exist without finding and sharing information, which is now made easy with the advent of the Internet. 

Watching movies, playing games, reading books, participating in events online is slowly becoming part of daily life. The online community has been viewed as a place of creativity and modernity, especially as more and more young people choose a digital career like vlogging, blogging, commentary etc., technology that uses the Internet as a medium is used systematically for their jobs. The blogging boom that started in the early 2000s has made an immense impact on lifestyle choices and perspective for the current generation. Whether it be fashion, literature, politics or technology, one instinctively relies on another's lived experiences. 

Ask Me Anything (AMAs) or How-To videos or live streams are almost a norm. One simply has to ask to get the answers from other humans, relying on each other's lives for their own. 

Still, it is naive to think that only positive and harmless information is shared all the time. Sometimes, people behind the screens have a vendetta against other users, whether driven by personal or political grudges, which is why cybercrime is a reality. Leaking sensitive data, blackmail and catfishing are only a few examples of what happens when citizens weaponize the versatility of the Internet.

The Internet exists as a double-edged sword; either one uses it or abuses it. There seems no other way around this widely used, and now impossible to discard, service. 

The Government’s Internet

It isn't easy to get used to the idea that once a person buys a smartphone and connects to the Internet, instantly, all of the information stored on it is obtained by a company. The fact that nothing can truly be erased until authoritative forces intervene is serious in contemplation. 

Sharing content on social media platforms has increased exponentially with the data giant Facebook, rife with controversies, dominating the industry. What used to become a platform for sharing memories and exchanging information now allows for more ways to let people showcase more of their lives and perspectives than one could have imagined at the beginning of the 2000s, using Stories and Reels.

Yet, using these tools is dangerous for those under the radar of the government. 

Laws to protect people from the sinister side of the digital world are amended as per the wishes of the ruling parties, which allows them the freedom of making draconian changes. The government has enough power to shut down an entire state’s Internet connection and say “It’s for your own good”. 

India’s most infamous Internet shutdowns have occurred in Kashmir and Darjeeling. Apart from being undemocratic, they erase people’s lives; when one cannot share with the world their experience, the world begins to forget their existence. 

If not politics on a large scale, the lives of Netizens are constantly under a spotlight. Who tweets what or posts when is policed by certain authorities. Journalists are targeted for their stories, activists for their activism, women for their bodies, queers for their lifestyle, SC/ST’s for their caste - but the victims all have one thing in common the judge, jury and executioner is the same excruciatingly patriarchal and privileged majoritarian class that seeks to control individual freedom. 

Those critical of the government, even in Sikkim, will find their comments section peppered with accounts that are strangely defensive. Surely, one cannot believe that political leaders have (or fund) fake accounts that comment on any post that is critical of them? Surely, they wouldn’t stoop so low? After all the government is for, of and by the people...right?

The punishment for creating fake accounts should be the same for common citizens and politicians - except it’s not. Taking accountability is a non-existent concept for powerful people.

New-Age weapons for the privileged

The Internet has become an easy weapon for racists, misogynists, upper-caste torchbearers and queerphobes to prey on those they consider weak. Bullying and aggression are easy. 

Recently in Sikkim, two individuals out of an identified 4-5 were caught for creating fake Facebook accounts that incited communal violence and outraging a woman's modesty. It's interesting to notice that both accounts used a woman's name to lure others as if that's all women amount to - bait. 

These accounts that permeate into people's friend lists (especially of public figures who don't have private accounts) and then spew hatred on the comments or send derogatory/threatening messages, feel like stepping into malicious digital quicksand. 

One could always report and block but the people behind them rarely see any action being taken against them in real life. They get away scot-free. 

Of course, there are exceptions. For instance, in the infamous Boys Locker Room case, social media users rallied against those who created the group chat on Instagram to objectify and sexualize young girls. The perpetrators were caught and punished but within a few days, another BLR was created. It’s a harrowing feeling - knowing that several of these toxic chatrooms currently exist and nothing will truly change even with strict laws in place.

Patriarchy and Performative Activism

However, if one takes a closer look at the stories on Instagram or Twitter, there is always someone, mostly an economic or social minority calling out people for derogatory language in messages or toxic comments or even spreading misinformation via fake accounts. 

A few weeks ago, a video of a nude Sikkimese woman who was reported as mentally unstable went viral on WhatsApp and social media outlets. Despite the accused being caught by Sadar Police Station, the damage had already been done. 

Performative activism, a term coined by Suffragette writer Barbara Green, is what happens when people's need for attention on social media mixes with the changing cultural and political landscape. Instead of truly understanding and supporting issues, one simply posts a photo or retweets actual activists; empty acts of support is no support at all. 

For the same reason, those who shared the video of the woman may have intended to do it "to catch the perpetrators" or "shame the criminals" are missing out on the bigger picture. The patriarchal need to advocate stringent violence against the accused instead of reforming the system is glaring in cases like these. 

The only difference between early humans and the current ones is that the former did it as a means to come up with effective social systems. The latter does it because they can. 

Then there's the argument that technology is to blame for all this. The medium has never been the problem. It is careless sharing and performative allyship that does more harm than good. 

Nobody cares about the woman in question except the few organizations whose job is to help her. 

Did she have a family? Did they see the video too? How did they feel? Is mental illness a reason to share her face with fierce abandon? How would she feel if she saw the video over and over again on different platforms?

These are questions the seemingly virtuous sharers did not ask themselves. Why would they? After all, they were 'only trying to help'.  

A Trinity of Internet Etiquette 

The first thing that smartphone users should understand is the responsibility of owning one. The Internet should be a tool of learning and information sharing, not a weapon. 

The second thing that Netizens should remember is to step back and give the mic to those who fight for causes that the former has only surface-level interest in. Sharing a post on the LGBTQ+ community to seem cool when in real life the homophobia reaches critical levels in language and action is not okay. Retweeting Dalit activists without carefully reading Babasaheb's work and understanding the deep-seated casteism in Indian society (and in one’s daily life) is not okay. 

The third thing that social media users should do is think about the consequences of their actions. To those who preach compassion and kindness on Facebook or Instagram, it is ridiculous to see hypocritical posts being shared on their feed. One cannot have a photo of yourself prostrating in front of Buddha without practising mindful behaviour in reality. 

The line must be drawn somewhere. The human rights watchdogs have done that. The communities affected have done that. The victims of digital abuse have done that. 

What right does the rest of the world have to violate it? 

Read more related articles:

A fine line: Cyberbullying and Cyber Crime in Sikkim

Internet shutdowns turning India undemocratic?

The invisible pandemic: 21st-century’s mental health crisis