Law in the Internet Society
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Hegemony on the Internet and How Majoritarianism Can Exacerbate It

-- By ConradNoronha - 10 Oct 2020

A Bloomberg article narrates a story of Anasuya Sengupta, an Indian activist, who wanted to create a Wikipedia page for a prominent British-Nigerian human-rights activist, Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi. Adeleye-Fayemi is well-known in activist circles for having helped in ending the Liberian Civil War. But she did not exist on Wikipedia, “which meant that as far as many people were concerned, she didn’t exist at all.” Sengupta decided to write a Wikipedia page on Adeleye-Fayemi. She cited several articles from the Nigerian press and clicked “publish.” But a few minutes later, a Wikipedia editor deleted her entry on grounds that the entry was trifling. Sengupta eventually convinced Wikipedia editors to include the entry, but only after a former chair of the Wikimedia foundation—who happened to be sitting next to her at a conference—intervened on her behalf.

This isn’t a one-off incident. North Americans and Europeans make up for less than a quarter of the population on the internet, but control most of its information. For example, most content on the internet relating to Africa is written by North-American and European men. Thenmozhi Soundarajan, a prominent Dalit activist based out of New York—who is engaged in publishing Dalit history on Wikipedia—talks about having to use a white male username on Wikipedia to have more articles approved. This is the western hegemony of the internet where white men act as gatekeepers of online knowledge. As Thenmozi puts it, this hegemonic gatekeeping is an impediment “to reclaim[ing] the agency of a mass of people who have historically remained peripheral in the consciousness of the academia and the state, and to bring forth their stories of resistance, resilience, and heroism. In the words of Woodson, ‘If a race has no history, if it has no worth-while tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.’” Thenmozhi’s organization Equality Labs is one of many online groups led by women of color from marginalized communities across the world which challenge this hegemony by sharing their knowledge and histories with the online community. But in India, they face another form of hegemony. One more violent and well organized: this is the Indian right wing.

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.

In early 2020, Facebook’s employees in-charge of policing hate speech began to get concerned with Facebook posts of an Indian politician named T. Raja Singh who 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 has taken down numerous white supremacist pages on the grounds that their posts could lead to violence in the real world. No one had any doubts that Singh was trying to instigate people to violently attack Muslims who were protesting India’s new racist citizenship laws which Modi's 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, these hate posts instigated a pogrom in Delhi where Mulisms were killed, raped, tortured, had their property set on fire, and made homless. While Das and Facebook were clear collaborators in 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 power 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 can shape people’s perception on issues that matter to them. Many of the “answers” are outright lies. While Wikipedia has blacklisted a few Hindu-nationalist English “news” websites, the Hindu right wing is trying to gain a hold of Wikipedia in vernacular Indian languages where the most prominent scholars tend to be upper-caste Hindus who have an affinity towards Hindu nationalism and can censor information that can threaten caste hierarchies and Hindu dominance.

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.

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r1 - 10 Oct 2020 - 13:41:20 - ConradNoronha
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