The world of social media can be a minefield of misinformation, and it does get difficult to verify facts and ensure the veracity of the information that comes to us on the winged notifications of our apps. This becomes starkly clear in times of crises. Hence, when the historic and heinous shootout at a gay night club in Orlando, USA, shook the world with horror and grief a couple of weeks ago, when the first tweets appeared on my timeline, my initial reaction was denial. Instead of believing those first responders, I was already searching for more credible news lines that could confirm — or hopefully deny — the massacre. It took only a few minutes, though, to realise that #StandWithOrlando was a reality that we will have to accommodate in the story of continued violence and abuse of sexual minorities around the world.
However, not all deception is bad. One of the most fantastic responses to the shoot-out was from a Quebec-based satirical website called JournalDemourreal.com that published a photoshopped image showing the Canadian PM Justin Trudeau kissing the leader of the Canadian opposition party Tom Mulcair, with a headline that the two, despite their differences, are “united against homophobia”. I know that I liked this fake story four times on different newsfeeds, half-believing, half-wishing that it was true, before I realised that it is a hoax. Morphed as it might be, the doctored image enabled people to talk about the tragedy as demanding a personal and a policy-level action, ranging from acceptance and freedom, to control of guns and protecting the rights of life and dignity for the sexual minorities who continue to remain persecuted in the world.
The image also allowed many queer people in different parts of the world — especially in the countries where homosexuality continues to be criminalised and severely punished — to participate not only in the global grief but also to demand that their governments take more responsibility towards its queer population.
While this photoshopped picture was making the rounds, another tweet showed up on my timeline. This time it was a tweet from our media-savvy PM, Narendra Modi, who claimed that he was “shocked at the shootout in Orlando.”And further added that his “thoughts and prayers are with the bereaved families and the injured”. When I saw this tweet, my reaction again, was that this must be another joke. Because even as queer rights activists in the country struggle to fight for the decriminalisation of homosexuality, through their curative petitions in the Supreme Court in India, PM Modi’s government has continued its hateful diatribe against queer people in the country. His party has called homosexuality “anti-Indian” and “anti-family”. The party’s favourite, Baba Ramdev, continues his hate speech, offering to cure homosexuality through yoga.
Ever since the current government took power, documented hate crimes against queer people have more than doubled in the country. So when the PM decided to offer his condolences to those in Orlando, I figured that either it was a fake Twitter account masquerading as the PM or it was some kind of a hacker troll — maybe Anonymous, the online guerrilla activists, who recently took over ISIS- friendly websites and filled them up with information about male homosexuality as a response to the shoot-out — had taken control of the Twitter account. But it turned out that this piece of information was not photoshopped or hacked. It was actually true, and we were to believe in earnest that while the government doesn’t care about the millions of queer people being denied their rights to live and love in their country, it is heartbroken about what happened in the USA.
It does make you wonder about the world we live in, where a photoshopped image sounded more plausible than an undoctored tweet. It emphasises why Orlando cannot be treated as one isolated instance in another country, but that #WeAreOrlando. For right now, Orlando is also in India. It is a reminder that while we have been fortunate not to have such an instance of dramatic violence, there are millions of people in the country who are forced to live and die in deception for their sexual orientation.
Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bangalore.