Freedom of speech and expression has always been a tricky issue. While all of us are generally in favour of defending our rights to speak what is in our hearts, we are not equally thrilled about the speech of others that we might not enjoy. While we know that free speech and expression are not absolute — there are blurred lines of things that are offensive, might cause harm, and are directed with malice at different individuals or collectives — we also generally accept that this is a freedom that marks the maturity and sustainability of a stable democratic system.
Thus, even when confronted with speech and expression that might be undesirable: a political view that contradicts ours, an expression of blasphemy or profanity, a voice of dissent that questions the status quo, or an unsavoury information tidbit that mocks at somebody we admire, we generally take it in good stride, and learn to deal and engage with these actions. We do this, because we know that trying to curtail somebody else’s rights to free speech, would eventually restrict our own capacity for it, thus reducing the scope of an engaged and critical society. Especially in countries like India, where everybody has an opinion, where people offer critiques over chai and join heated debates over paan, there’s no denying that we are fond of our rights and capacity to speak
However, within Digital India, these things seem to be changing fast. Every day we wake up to the cacophonous clamour of social media to realise that increasingly we are becoming an intolerant society filled with vigilantes bent on stopping people from saying things that we might just not like. In the ongoing saga of shrinking spaces of free speech, we now add the shameful incident at the Embassy of Sweden in India. On May 8, following mass populist trolling and complaints from the Twitteratti, the Embassy disinvited two women print and TV journalists — Swati Chaturvedi and Barkha Dutt — and cancelled their event, ironically, in the honour of World Press Freedom, on the topic of women’s participation in the online public space, to talk about trolls.
I shall wait here for the bitter irony to sink in: two of the strongest women voices in Indian public media, were disinvited to speak from an event where they were to talk about their experience of being trolled, harassed, bullied and intimidated in the newly emerging digital media landscape. Instead of giving them a voice, sharing their experiences, and engaging with their stories, the hypermasculine army of right wing vigilantes who object to these women’s history of critique of the current government and its leaders, decided to show their Twitter might, and celebrated as they succeeded in putting one more nail in the coffin of free and fearless speech in the country.
Some Twitter users went ahead and tagged their favourite leaders — @Narendramodi and @manekagandhibjp. They demanded, using their freedom of voice, to stop others from speaking. Social media networks have often been celebrated as alternative spaces where new, and unexpected voices can express their opinions without the fear of physical retribution or penalisation. While this has been consistently proven wrong by government authorities who have regularly policed, penalised and punished voices of dissent or disfavour, that at least is something we can notice, challenge and contest through legal redressal. However, with this new mob justice where the volume of voices engineered to amplify their disapproval, coupled with threats of violence and economic downfall (the users this time threatened to make a list of Swedish products and boycott them) is a recurring and disturbingly new phenomenon.
Crowds have always had the power to demand and leverage change of their liking. However, on social media, this can take up more sinister forms, because a handful of people through Twitter bots and chat scripts can create the illusion of a hugely amplified voice that can then be used to threaten and restrict the scope of free speech. The mass bullying effect needs a strong counterpoint in the form of better internet governance policies and regulations that nurture safe spaces for the tinier voices to be heard.
At the same time, however, the stifling attempts require another strategy — the need to speak up against such acts of intimidation and silencing, not only from the regular people on the web, but from the officials and leaders who have sworn to protect our constitutional rights. And this is, perhaps, where our leaders are failing us. Because, in an age of hypervisibility, where every step they take is a selfie moment, where every move they make makes it to the headlines, and they take pride in documenting their life in exceedingly boring detail, it creates a deafening silence when the leaders remain mute to the slow dissipation of the rights to free speech and expression by the angry mobs of networked digitality.
Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bangalore.