The liberation of ‘the medium’ has repercussions for civility and civilisation

It’s free,’ I was told again and again. ‘Facebook is free.’ Then came Twitter. ‘It’s free,’ I was told, again and again. ‘Twitter is free.’

Then came WhatsApp.

‘It’s free,’ I was told. Each time I said, ‘When it’s free, you’re the product,’ but no one listened. People like their information to be available to everyone. People like their data to be known to big companies. People do not want privacy. Or so it seems. But the price tag has turned out to be bigger than giving away our data. Trolling began to rage across the globe, making discourse coarse, turning debate into venom, turning the most ordinary conversation into exercises in vitriol.

Forwards and backwards

‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me,’ some people retorted, hiding behind an old saw that has been disproved billions of times over. Words hurt, words cut and wound. They also build and heal and nurture but you cannot have one without the other. You cannot allow that words matter and have libel and slander laws and then say: words are only words. Hate speech is hate speech. Our national anthem and the prayers we say are also words. If one has power, the other has power too.

But what of the power of the mob?

For the hate has spilled out on to the street. Now, WhatsApp groups are organising themselves into lynch mobs. The mob is thirsty, it is baying for blood. It’s out there, looking for victims and it needs no evidence to convict and pass sentence and execute. However, it wants evidence of what it did, it wants to record the beating, the protestations of innocence, the tears of the human being caught in this horror. These videos celebrate savagery and death. Snuff films are now being passed around. You don’t have to dig down into the dark web for them now. Middle-class people, powered by their moral outrage, will send them to you, right after the ‘Good Morning’ rose and gurgly message.

So what is going on?

I believe all this is about power.

When I began teaching at the post-graduate media course at SCM Sophia, Mumbai, 25 years ago, I would ask my students what they did for leisure. They would say that their down-time was cinema. Even then they did not remember what it was like to want to see a specific film, like in the 1970s, when I was a child. You were in the power of the man who owned the cinema and what he thought you should watch. If you missed a film on its first run because it flopped unexpectedly, you had to wait until it showed up at a matinee show in some fleabag cinema and then cross the city to see it. The video cassette changed all that. You could own the film. You could decide when to see it. You could skip some scenes and watch others again and again. You were the boss.

But it was still someone else’s story.

You might identify with the characters, the situations might have resonances for you, but it was still someone else’s story. When you rose at the end, tear-stained or sides aching or both, you had been manipulated — you only knew this vaguely — by someone else.

Then along came Facebook and you could be the author of your own story, you could have your own audience, you could move them to laughter by recounting a faux pas, you could move them to tears by your account of your cat’s last days, you could get the airline to respond to your claim by shaming them on social media. You are now the hero of your own story and your audience response is measured in likes and shares and retweets or reposts.

Power to the masses! The democratisation of storytelling! Yay.

The media did pretty much the same thing. That’s us guys. We had power over you. We decided what you read and saw.

Oh we let you have your space. We printed the letters to the editor and we showed you what we thought of you by burying your words in the middle of the 16 sheets. We rarely responded except when there was a legal letterhead on which your missive arrived.

Facebook and Twitter and WhatsApp made you the editor of your own newspaper. But they liberated you from the responsibilities that 400 years of newspapers had created, the legal systems around them.

Now if you say, ‘There’s a suspicious family squatting on my street and they’re about to steal some children because that’s the kind of people they are,’ you are not going to be held accountable for the violence that follows. Perhaps someone will call you out, perhaps there will be a storm around your words, perhaps you may even have to apologise and withdraw them and you will end up feeling: ‘My gosh, isn’t there any freedom of speech left in the land?’ But it is also likely that someone will forward your words, and the words will go viral and a mob will form and the family will be beaten to death.

The question is: are you responsible?

I am not asking about the legality of the issue. I hope at some point this will get the judicial and judicious attention it deserves. I am asking: are those who posted those incendiary messages morally responsible for the deaths they cause?

With great power

Now let’s expand the question: is the medium responsible?

Newspapers are. Legally responsible.

Television also was supposed to be though it seems to rage unchecked against civility and civilisation these days.

Is WhatsApp? Is Facebook? Is Twitter?

When their power is huge, why are their responsibilities so small? Twitter is richer than Liberia but if Liberians were to commit an outrage, the United Nations would have a thing or two to say. Facebook is richer than Cambodia and ditto, ditto, ditto.

What’s WhatsApp got to do with the lynchings? Nothing, because it’s only technology and technology is always innocent. The proponents of this kind of thinking say: ‘A knife can be used to kill and the same knife can be used to heal in a surgeon’s hands.’ This is the kind of disingenuous argument that the pro-gun people use when there’s another school shooting in America and another dozen children die, roadkill in the protection of the rights of man. The French Revolution would not have accounted for so many deaths if the executioners had not had access to the nifty device inspired by the ideas of a certain Joseph-Ignace Guillotin.

The social media experts always say: Social media are magnifiers. They’re just making things bigger than they are.

Do we like what we see in the magnifying mirror?

The author tries to think and write and translate in the cacophony of Mumbai.

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