Hanging the hashtag
And ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars; see that ye be not troubled - Jesus Christ
It is embarrassing now, and after a few years, it may be even more embarrassing to be reminded -- by the New Journalism of that age -- of this moment. To be reminded that some of us journalists had actually campaigned for state censorship.
This is perhaps unprecedented in the history of journalism. One thought it was easier to make a Wall Street investment banker go bolshie and occupy Wall Street.
In the last few days, some senior journalists have persistently called for "regulation" of social media, the bewildering organism that just wouldn't stop growing. They have, by accident or design, allied with a bungling and cornered government.
Together, the government and the journalists have blamed rumour-mongering on social media for spread of violence in the country over the Northeast riots. They cited it to call for what they termed "limited censorship" on Twitter, Facebook and other social networking sites.
The government, emboldened and pleasantly surprised to suddenly have a section of the media co-cheering its little autocratic project, first went about reportedly blocking half a dozen spoofs of the PM and the PM's office. For instance, the parody handle, @PM0India, which tweeted uncharitable stuff about the Prime Minister and his party, was blocked. Indians apparently are so dim that they might believe our PM takes potshots at himself on Twitter the whole day.
But beneath the veneer of self-righteous disapproval of "hate propaganda", the government and the senior journalists possibly have a far more earthy and personal reason to unite against social media: Insult.
A small but vocal section of Twitter users, known as trolls, sit in their lonely, ignored corners and direct abuses at public personalities. Technology has provided a 'Block' button to deal with this bunch, and commonsense supplements it with an invisible 'Ignore' button. For champions of censorship, those are not enough.
They are fed up with 24X7 barrage of abuse, and the NE threats, rumours and violence gives them a perfect opportunity to turn their attention from the hatemongers in the real world to the delinquents of the virtual world.
Here are some thoughts on the rationale presented for censorship:
* No social media, no rumours? Bombay, Gujarat, Sikh riots and a hundred other cases of mass violence did not need social media to spread. In Bombay '93, I remember a short, swift rumour blazing across our hostel and parts of the city before the terrible backlash to the Radhabai chawl killings began: "Bal Thackeray arrested." Twitter and Facebook were not even conceived then; SMS was just out of science's womb. Lord Ganesh started drinking milk all over the country on the morning of September 21, 1995, long before TV reporters could rub sleep off their eyes. Media had to scramble to capture the mysteriously speedy rumours; rumours didn't follow media. During Arab Spring, every dictator from Hosni Mubarak to Ben Ali tried to stifle social media, only to fail and gather more popular wrath.
* Don't shoot the medium: You can't ban aeroplanes after an air crash. You can't attack a knife because you cut your finger in the kitchen. Similarly, you can't go putting virtual terrain out of bounds because some use it irresponsibly.
* You don't make the law here: A newspaper or channel sells information to an audience under well-defined social, ethical, legal and commercial contracts. On social media, information is free, and bound by no such understanding. You may ignore every word of it. It has still not been conclusively established whether social media is in the public or private domain or in a strange twilight zone. It doesn't and won't ever play by your rules. If you still want to punish somebody for abuse or defamation, sue them.
* Hunt for terrorists, not trolls: We should have robust intelligence presence on social media, look out for the real troublemakers who are planning attacks against the nation. The US does it. We need to do solid homework on killers rather than kill the mockingbirds.
* Take lampooning with a laugh: The art of lampooning is the sign of an evolved society. And the even the most obnoxious verbal abuse is not reason enough for the government to step in as the bully. The Queen, UK, inspires at least two dozen spoof accounts. Each funnier than the other, sometimes nasty, but we know it is not the Queen tweeting.
* Rage vs Insecurity: Social media uses its teeth of direct feedback pretty ruthlessly. It may be uninformed, rabid, harbouring sly agenda and abusive, but it constantly challenges mainstream media's own commercial and political agendas, slants, political correctness. To journalists' dismay as well as delight, it even breaks news. While this turf war for information in inevitable, the two are destined to co-exist. While social media is here for good, large and credible news organisations will exist simply because gathering, presenting and legally defending news is very expensive.
* Give a finger, they'll want arm: Once you ally with the government on censoring any kind of media, it is not going to stop there. It is going to come and bite you some day. Popular tweeter @FakingNews nicely twists Pastor Martin Niemoller's lines on Nazis in today's Indian context: "First they came for those who I considered bigots, and I didn't speak out because I thought I wasn't a bigot."
Celebrities, politicians, journalists thronged to social media, petted it, earned the following of lakhs. It is when they wanted it to feed off their hands that they discovered a very different animal, one with tantalising contradictions -- moody and constant, funny and angry, fawning and sarcastic, all-knowing and uninformed, sycophantic and abusive at the same time. The only place where you get 'irreverent followers'.
Pop group One Direction's Zayn Malik recently quit Twitter "sick of all the useless opinions". So did singer Miley Cyrus and Press Council of India's sanctimonious boss Justice Markandey Katju. Many more may follow them.
This creature called social media is way beyond our individual or institutional control. Because this creature is us.