Law in the Internet Society

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Majoritarianism: A Threat to an Open Internet

-- By ConradNoronha - 30 Jan 2021

The internet is probably one of the greatest creations in human history. What’s more remarkable is that it originated without any central planning and wasn’t controlled by any single entity. It made an unprecedented amount of information accessible to anyone connected to the web. But this anarchist nature of the internet has faced several threats: from big tech companies to insecure governments. But one often-ignored threat is that of majoritarianism. An example of a majoritarian threat to a free internet exists in India today.

The Indian right wing is organized, tech savvy, and determined to maintain its hegemonic control over South-Asian society. With over 560 million users—not including the number of Indians living abroad—India is the second largest online market in the world. In the run up to India’s 2014 general election, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—then the primary opposition party—and its leader Narendra Modi, saw India’s internet penetration as a propaganda opportunity. They created an army of online volunteers who used social media to change Indian’s perception of Modi from being a political pariah—responsible for a genocide in his home state of Gujarat—to being a shrewd technocrat and a messiah in the waiting. This social-media strategy helped the BJP win with a landslide.

What began as an election strategy has grown “into a sophisticated machine that includes a huge ‘troll army’ of paid and voluntary supporters who help spread the party’s message on platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp? , and Twitter, instantly reaching millions of people.” This troll army has normalized bigotry and hate towards minorities and Dalits. It has weaponized social media websites to spread disinformation and hate.

Today several Hindu-right-wing websites spread fake news to a large user base. They are supplemented by a number of right-wing social media groups which peddle the same lies. These websites and social media groups target minorities, Dalits, journalists and civil-society activists. While the troll army attacks prominent individuals on social media who express opinions on South-Asian issues which do not align with the Hindu-nationalist narrative. Most recently, they got an Indian jewelry brand to take down an ad which depicted an interfaith marriage between a Hindu and a Muslim.

India’s online trolls instigate violence in the real world. In early 2020, Facebook’s employees charged with policing hate speech began to get concerned with the Facebook posts of an Indian politician named T. Raja Singh. Singh had called for Rohingya refugees to be shot, called Muslisms traitors, and threatened to raze mosques. This clearly violated Facebook’s claimed community standards. In fact, Facebook had taken down numerous white supremacist pages on the grounds that their posts could lead to violence in the real world. No one had any doubt that Singh was trying to instigate people to violently attack Muslims who were protesting India’s new racist citizenship laws which the Narendra Modi government had enacted in 2019. But, the company’s top public-policy executive, Ankhi Das—whose job involves lobbying the Indian government on behalf of Facebook—opposed applying hate speech rules to Singh and other Hindu-nationalist groups. She claimed that curbing hate speech from Hindu-nationalist groups and BJP politicians would affect Facebook’s business prospects in India. A few months later, social media posts like these instigated a pogrom in Delhi where Muslims were killed, raped, tortured, had their property set of fire, and made homeless. While Das and Facebook’s refusal to apply their own hate-speech standards to Hindu supremacist accounts enabled the execution of the Delhi massacre, Das was not wrong. India’s government has a vindictive attitude towards companies and organizations that do not tow its line.

This combination of market power and political power gives India’s right wing the ability to silence speech that it doesn’t agree with. Sangapali Aruna, who runs an organization which leverages technology to empower Dalits, was in a conversation with Twitter’s CEO, Jack Dorsey. She was talking about women’s safety on twitter following an incident where she was the victim of doxing. At the end of the conversation, Dorsey stood with women activists for a picture. They handed him a poster which read “Smash Brahmanical Patriarchy.” When this picture went online, the backlash from Hindu nationalists and supporters of the caste system was swift and overwhelming. Fearing its loss of market share in India and action from the Indian government, Twitter apologized for that picture.

The Indian right wing has understood the power of the internet in propagating ideas. It is focused as much on using its brute strength to censor people on the internet as it is on disseminating ideas of Hindu supremacy. Quora, a platform which used to be used by techies to ask questions and give answers has evolved into a platform for Hindu-nationalist discussions and where Hindu nationalists try and shape people’s perception on issues that matter to them. Many of the “answers” are outright lies. Hindu nationalists have already begun trying to control information on Wikipedia. While Wikipedia has blacklisted a few Hindu-nationalist English “news” websites, Hindu nationalists have set their eyes on Wikipedia in vernacular Indian languages. The most prominent scholars, in these languages, tend to be upper-caste Hindus who have an affinity toward Hindu nationalism. This allows Wikipedia moderators in these languages to censor information that can threaten caste hierarchies and Hindu dominance.

Hindu nationalism is certainly not a threat to the internet as whole. At least not yet. But it does demonstrate the power of majoritarian groups to hijack the internet's anarchist model. As we try to re-democratize the internet, we need to be aware of social imbalances which exclude people from enjoying the freedoms of the internet and political majoritarianism which can threaten to capture a nascent internet democracy.


Hegemony on the Internet and How Majoritarianism Can Exacerbate It

-- By ConradNoronha - 10 Oct 2020

Revision 3r3 - 30 Jan 2021 - 20:10:32 - ConradNoronha
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