It is a problem many nations are facing. When does freedom of speech and expression cross over into incitement to hatred and violence, and what can or should a country do about it?
India has been trying to deal with a rising amount of anti-Muslim propaganda on social media. When India, Pakistan and Bangladesh (East Pakistan) were liberated from British rule and created as independent states in 1947, there was a very horrific attempt to separate the Hindi and Muslim populations with a mass cross-migration. Thousands died in the ensuing violence. Eventually, Pakistan and Bangladesh became predominantly Muslim and India became predominantly Hindi, but the division was not pure and several flashpoints have remained. Hinduism is the religion of 80.5% of India’s population and Muslims are 13.4%. The remaining 6.1% are a mix of Christian, Shikh, Buddhist, Jainist, Jews, Zoroastrians and Baha’i.
Recently, social media such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter have been used to spread rumors about Muslim activities, and Google searches open links to hate sites. These are directly linked to attacks on Muslims in the state of Assam, resulting in 80 deaths and the displacement of up to 300,000 people in the past two months. The sites merge real news footage with propaganda spiels that warp the meaning of the footage. The Indian government identified over 300 such sites and asked co-operation from Google, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter to block access. The first three have co-operated, but Twitter has been dragging its corporate feet.
The “crackdown” on hate speech sites has caused an uproar in India over freedom of speech and access rights. Some of the targeted sites belong to legitimate journalists who claim they are being singled out for their anti-government positions.
Last year, the Indian parliament passed a law the requires Internet companies to remove or block sites deemed to be carrying “objectionable content” when the government requests it. The law has been protested by those who believe it stifles freedom of speech.
And therein lies the conundrum for democracies. We used to say that freedom of speech does not include the right to yell “fire!” in a crowded theater. It does include the right to criticize the government on issues. But does freedom of speech include someone convincing a bunch of gullible people that their lives and liberty are at risk from a scattered minority amounting to 13% of a nation’s population, inciting random acts of violence against that minority? Does freedom of speech include a program of propaganda that causes the rise of hundreds of anti-government militias and leads to the bombing of a government building, killing 168 men, women and children? Where does a government draw the line? India and Twitter are wrestling with that question.