At the turn of 20th century, Facebook was born and so were the many first-time student protestors lining up the streets today to protest against the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Registration of Indian Citizens (NRIC). While, student protestors of Jamia Millia Islamia University took to the streets to raise their concerns, another group of students worked tirelessly behind the curtains. The latter group ensured that there was a steady flow of posts and information regarding the ongoing protests. Courtesy to Instagram, Whatsapp, and Facebook likeminded people and dissidents were able to organise and take collective action, which Turkish sociologist Zeynep Tufekci calls the ‘information cascade’.
The formidability of social media came to light when on 15th December, within a matter of a few hours post the brutality and barbarism of Delhi Police on the students of Jamia, a huge crowd gathered in front of the headquarters of Delhi Police at ITO demanding the release of detained students. These were not just students of Jamia Millia Islamia University but also students of Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi University, IP University and the locals. Probably, three decades back, this level of collectivisation of people and spread of information in such a short span of time would not have been possible. The spine chilling event of 15th December in which one student lost his eye, innocent students who were not even protesting were mercilessly beaten, and subjected to psychological and verbal assault acted as a ‘tipping point’. The police brutality could not drown the voice of the protesting students. The undeterred students rose stronger, more determined to fight against the unconstitutional and discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act.
Social media has played an important role since the fateful day of 15th December with posts not only spreading information about the schedule of protests but also criticising mute onlookers until their conscience screams at them. Born in 2004, Facebook was created to serve a coterie of elite students but now social media platforms have become mainstream. Whatsapp alone has 400 million users in India, which once again reiterates its formidability and fragility. In the era of information, where data is the new oil, the question arises that whether social media needs a watchdog. People have figured out ways to doctor videos and manipulate information thereby giving the narrative a 360-degree spin.
Many fake posts, doctored videos have been circulating, which are not only misleading but also incendiary depict how powerful and dangerous social media can be. A fake post, which includes 4 pictures of one of the student protestors, Ayesha Renna, claimed that she has been protesting in different cities. All the photographs in the post were taken in New Delhi hence debunking the post as fake. Another post with a photograph of policemen with head injuries went viral on social media claiming that anti-CAA protestors have caused it. This claim is also false as the image has been in circulation since 2018. In the midst of fake news and rumours, a student at Jamia Millia Islamia University recorded a video depicting how easy it is to spread fake news and tamper with someone’s Facebook posts.
In the online world, social media sits on the thin line between private and public space. Fake news, tampered videos, rumours make one ponder whether we need a watchdog for social media. However, as one question leads to another, we may ask how will it be ensured that the watchdog will not become a moral policing agency? In the digital space, as it is said, “Nothing gets deleted completely and everyone is naked” who will ensure that the Right to Privacy of citizens is not violated? In addition, with the Citizenship Amendment Act and the newly tabled Data Protection Bill is the Indian State becoming Orwellian?
We may not have found satisfactory answers to such questions but we need to realize what we can do as individuals and politically active citizens of this country to curb the spread of fake news.
Department of English, Jamia Millia Islamia