Online watchdogs

Written by  Vidya Kulkarni

In June, some offensive images posted on Facebook and Whatsapp caused communal tension, violence and one death in Pune. The Social Peace Force believes in using digital means to tackle digital violence

In June 2014, there was an outbreak of communal tension and violence in Pune, sparked by derogatory pictures of Shivaji and the late Bal Thackeray posted on Facebook. The morphed images first appeared on Facebook and were then circulated on WhatsApp. Angry mobs took to the streets, causing communal outbreaks at various locations and settlements in the city. Personal and public property was destroyed, and Mohsin Shaikh, an IT professional who had absolutely nothing to do with the posts on FB, was killed in Hadapsar in south Pune. Shaikh was attacked by young members of a radical Hindu organisation.

While the social media was used to fuel the tension, the mainstream media deliberately downplayed events to contain public anger. But the city remained tense for over a week end-May and early-June.

Twenty-year-old Munna who lives in one of the Muslim settlements that were targeted in Hadapsar, says the turmoil in their area has left young people disturbed and restless. Munna is a cab driver, while his mother works as a domestic help. Adverse family conditions forced him to drop out of school and start working. Munna has a wide circle of friends who chat through WhatsApp. He finds it an economical and efficient way to stay connected and informed. The content of their communication, however, has changed after the communal outbreak. “We are in touch almost all the time. If anyone senses trouble in his area he passes on the message to us.” As he speaks he displays some of their posts. Most are forwards of angry sentiments of affected people. Some are pictures of damage done during the rampage in various areas. One of the images is of a demolished mosque. Although there were some instances of attacks on mosques in Pune during the week of tension, the image that Munna pointed to was of a mosque in another country. Munna was unaware of this.

After a few weeks Pune was back to business as usual, but the psychological impact of such incidents lingers.

Posts on the social media networks have whipped up public unrest and anger in other parts of India too. The media has always been manipulated by forces with a vested interest in communal polarisation. But the social media has far wider reach, allows communication in realtime, and makes it difficult to trace the sender.

How can a secular and more responsible culture be built on social media?

A group in Pune has come up with some answers. The Social Peace Force or SPF was formed after the recent violence.

SPF believes in generating a balanced response and intervention to stop the misuse of social media to communalise and ignite public sentiments. 

Aishwarya Patil, an engineering student and one of the founder-members of SPF, describes their attempt as “an initiative to stop anti-social messages on FB”.

“We all get disturbed when incidents like this take place. Although people are hooked on Facebook, most are not aware about its security options. But they are very simple and can help you stop the fuelling of a deteriorating situation.” Key among them is the 'Report Spam' option. “Users only tend to use the ‘Like’ button. If there is something they do not like they ignore it and move on. But they can click on ‘Report Spam’ in the same window. FB provides that a post gets deleted if it receives over 1,600 ‘Report Spam’ hits. This is the easiest way to register your protest.”

“But what usually happens is that people impulsively forward the sensational post rather than scotching it using ‘Report Spam’. They thus (often unintentionally) contribute to the damage/panic. Therefore we want more and more users to get educated on the security options and sensible use of FB.”

Explaining the philosophy that led to the formation of SPF Aishwarya says, “When communal tensions crop up in cyberspace they have to be curtailed in cyberspace. Digital violence needs to be tackled digitally.” Considering the reach of social media the time factor is  important. “It is essential to get the offending post removed at the earliest, so SPF members keep a vigil and track down such posts.”

The idea caught on and within a month SPF membership shot up. Presently SPF has over 29,000 members and has set a target of 100,000 members. There is a special and purposeful emphasis on increasing membership.

“In order to get the objectionable posts removed from FB at least 1,600 FB users have to report spam in one go. So usually when any member comes across such a negative post, we appeal to members to come online and report spam together. With a large membership, it is more likely that the required number of members will be online at a given time.”

“The offensive posts in Pune were removed from FB after four to five days," says Aishwarya. "This happened as there was no awareness and preparedness for tackling them. Henceforth, whenever SPF comes across such posts, they will be removed in minutes, thus causing less damage.”

But is there a possibility that the very same method could be used to censor posts/opinions that are opposed to one's own? Could it become one more way to stifle dissent and undermine pluralism of views online?

Like any weapon it can be used both ways, argue SPF's promoters. “We believe in use of social networking for empowerment and not for social eruption. Hence we are all for exploring its potential to check negative posts,” SPF says.

After the Pune incident the Maharashtra Home Department has got stricter with its regulation of social media. Home Minister R R Patil declared that along with those who post objectionable material, those who ‘forward’ or ‘like’ it would also be held guilty. These restrictions posed a challenge to the functioning of SPF, since the promoters needed to forward the message to group members to ‘report’ it. The SPF approached the police department and made the Cyber Cell its member. The watchdog functions are now carried out in collaboration with the police. During the last two months SPF claims to have succeeded in removing a few objectionable posts and containing damage.

www.netpehchaan.in September 2014

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