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The Conundrum Of Free Speech On Social Media

Social media has a myriad of connotations for different people. While for some critics it serves as a double-edged sword, for others it is the breeding ground of all societal evils. For the millennials, it might be a tool for liberation and expression, while the older generation might view it as a perpetrator of violence and cultural dissolution.

The enigma of social media lies in the fact that none of these claims or dissenting opinions can be outrightly refuted. All of these statements hold some truth, albeit the extent of veracity varies according to subjective interpretations. This article seeks to present the reader with the implications of the conundrum that is social media, based on a medley of facts, without denouncing or exonerating it, so as to remain as far removed from bias as possible.
 
The polarized debate over the Kerala government’s recent attempt to pass gag laws, projected by some as a brazen assault on people’s right to freedom of speech and expression in which the government can arrest any person who ‘intimidates, defames or insults individuals via any communication platform’, leads one to ponder over the  intention behind such laws.[i]

While some eyebrows were raised over the timing of this law which happened to be proposed just before elections, other people were enraged over this blatant attempt to curtail their freedom of speech.

Many critics pointed out that the law leaves a lot of grey area for its misuse and could act as a fuel for fulfilling people’s ulterior motives, including vengeance. The reason for that is that social media promotes immediate, unfiltered and reactive responses, as opposed to the rational responses that we give when we have had time to mull over the situation, and think about it objectively rather than emotionally.
 
The ability to freely express one’s controversial opinions under the aegis of anonymity on social media is both a benediction and a malediction. On the one hand, it bolsters people to speak up against things that are wrong and need to be changed, without fear of ostracization or ridicule. Contradictorily, it enables trolls to say hurtful and despicable things behind the protection of the computer screen, that would ordinarily be seen as blasphemy in real life.

What is worse is that these internet trolls suffer no real consequences. As it is nearly impossible for platforms the size of Instagram and Facebook to regulate individual comments, the onus of reporting them lies mainly on the victims. Often times, to avoid these things from taking a toll on one’s mental health, people avoid bringing action against these wrongdoers.

Sometimes even people close to the victims can gaslight them and make them feel like the issue is smaller than it actually is, especially as the threat is virtual, not physical or immediately perceptible. But this merely serves to warrant the trolls to continue their reprehensible conduct. Even if their account stands suspended, they are only a couple of clicks away from creating another one and continuing the perpetual cycle of hate.

There are many bot accounts on social media, which are tailor made for some specific purposes, mostly to comment on or promote one single ideology, which could even be political. These accounts form a large part of these platforms and can skew public opinion by emulating human behaviour. If they go unchecked, they can easily shift the narrative by delegitimizing genuine public opinion and reducing them to an obscure minority.
 
This is not to say that nothing good comes out of this ability to express oneself without inhibitions. In the recent BLM protests, a huge chunk of its success was due to the trending BLM hashtags on social media, which encouraged people to sign petitions and donate to the relevant cause in large numbers. Social media influencers also had a pertinent role to play in it. In fact, may people have made a livelihood out of sharing their opinion about pressing topics on the internet.

A case in point is a YouTuber who goes by the name of D’Angelo Wallace, who has garnered over 1.7 million subscribers because of his videos talking about ‘whatever he wants’, in his own words. He has made viral videos in the past, calling out creators for their deplorable behaviour, including blackface, racism and pedophilia, to name a few.

This not only sheds light on these issues and normalizes talking about them in public, but also holds those people who indulge in such acts accountable. Another creator, ‘tiffanyferg’, is famous for her series called ‘Internet Analysis’, in which she talks about issues such as body image, diversity and hustle culture, among others.

These creators have transcended the barriers of YouTube by being featured on various blogs and news channels for their immaculate and articulate way of bringing their point across to a huge audience. Not only have they brought awareness among the masses in an entertaining and palatable manner, they have also increased the credibility of YouTube as a platform.
 
Many a times, social media also calls out OTT platforms for their harmful or immoral content, thus keeping them in check. Recently, streaming platform Netflix released a French film called ‘Cuties’, which pandered to the baser instincts of pedophiles by hyper sexualizing pre-pubescent girls. Social media creators and people from across the globe were quick to call out Netflix over its blatant disregard of morality, and blasphemous conduct.

People started petitions and flooded the comment sections of Netflix’s Instagram and YouTube pages, demanding the film to be removed. What was ironic was that Cuties itself was a cautionary tale about the dangers that social media can pose to kids, which can lead to premature aging and objectification.
 
The platforms have served as a particularly tumultuous ride for women. The normalization of obscenity and provocative remarks towards women have normalized projecting rape as a ‘culture’, as if it is something that is a custom or acceptable social behaviour, which is downright ridiculous. Women who post on social media are viewed as ‘public property’, with certain men thinking that it is their right to objectify and scrutinize their bodies.

People constantly slut shame women for their clothing and life choices. A video posted by a Bollywood actress, Sara Ali Khan, in august, while having fun in a pool, was flooded with comments calling her a ‘disgrace to her family’, some even going as far as to question her faith and morality, all based on a piece of clothing she donned. There are social media pages dedicated to hating on people and can even go as far as to send death threats.

This fosters another bane of social media, that is, ‘cancel’ culture. This is perhaps one of the most misused one out of all. An incident in July, in which a Gujarati man openly threatened to rape a female comedian and called to his supporters to boycott her, after she allegedly insulted his religion, is one such case in which the extent of profanity and absurdity that social media witnesses can be seen. Needless to say, nothing is constant on these platforms.

Who is a hero one day, can become a villain the next- there is no fixed narrative. So, what becomes imperative in this context is to carefully curate your own, while developing a penchant for avoiding trouble.

End-Notes:
  1. Jeemon Jacob, Why Pinarayi Vijayan did a U-Turn on Kerala’s Gag Laws (Nov 30, 2020, 9:52 pm), https://www.indiatoday.in/india-today-insight/story/why-pinarayi-vijayan-did-a-u-turn-on-kerala-s-gag-law-1743758-2020-11-24

    Written By: Jasmine Mangat

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