Mainstream media seems keen to throttle the financing of digital and social media in the name of curbing hate speech and falsehoods.
Paul Romer, an economist who won the Nobel in 2018 along with William Nordhaus, has been calling for a tax on digital advertising for the last two years.
Even though his proposal targets the digital advertising monopolies of Google and Facebook (now Meta), a Times of India group columnist, Swaminathan S Anklesaria Aiyar, now wants the idea extended to social media in order to curb hate speech and falsehoods.
The counterpoint is: if hate speech and falsehoods are so easy to verify, you can ban them anyway. The tax on ads is thus a copout, and an effort to pretend that one is doing something when one is not.
Aiyar does not touch on the real problem: the lack of an acceptable definition of the term hate speech, leave alone falsehood.
At one point, the idea that the earth is a sphere would have seemed like falsehood, but now it is the flat earth theory that stands falsified.
Truth is itself an evolutionary idea, and we come up with better truths when knowledge and experience grow. There is no absolute truth, unless we are talking about facts observable by all at a point of time.
Even Gospel truth is not truth, as the four Gospels do not always say the same thing.
Standing in the sun, whoever is present can affirm that it is not night. But it is night on the other side of the earth too. All truths are truths only to some people, some of the time.
As for hate speech, there is no religious or secular literature that does not abound in it. So, should we tax the Bible, Quran and Manu Smriti?
Consider these statements, and detect which one is really hate speech.
I abhor Communism as it supports authoritarianism and dictatorship.
Few people would call the above statement hate speech, though one could incite people against communism or even communists.
Yet, substitute the word communism with Religion X, and it becomes hate speech. If you say “I abhor/hate Religion X because it advocates violence against Y people”, you will be banned from social media or silenced.
And yet, the same idea, if expressed as an attack on, say, Brahminism, or Hindutva, becomes acceptable. And this when both Brahminism and Hindutva are used to describe specific people or ideas, without any normative definition.
The same essential factoids can become frank discussion or hate speech depending on whether Zakir Naik or Nupur Sharma is saying it.
So, what Aiyar is proposing is not a ban on hate speech or falsehood, but a crimp in the lifelines of social media and digital media, which are eating into the revenues of mainstream print and TV media.
He is also wrong to indirectly assume that digital media advertising is not taxed. It is taxed at 18 per cent (goods and services tax), while print is taxed at 5 per cent.
And no, regardless of whether social media advertising is taxed or not, hate speech and falsehoods will not disappear.
Even before social media came on the scene, all the major media organisations, from The New York Times to The Economist, for which Aiyar was once a contributor, were instrumental in spreading the fake news that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. He didn’t.
But we didn’t hear too many mea culpas or calls for higher taxes on mainstream media for spreading falsehood.
Even today, in the Russia-Ukraine war, Western media has been extremely one-sided in reportage, with Ukraine being the good guy and Russia the bad guy. No nuances are needed when you are clear which side you are backing.
The proposed tax on social media or digital media will not stop anything that Aiyar wants to stop, especially that half-truths that the mainstream media may want to peddle as god’s truth.
Even god’s truth, as we know, was received in a garbled format by many religions, and is currently being massaged to mean something else in order to keep it from being ridiculed in the light of science and progress.
Aiyar’s proposal is not about preventing hate and falsehood. It will, most probably, help only the big media to retain its stranglehold on the narratives it wants to claim as truth and nothing but the truth.
Ever since social and digital media took away the monopoly power of mainstream media to set the agenda and control the narrative, it has been trying to discredit the latter. It must be thwarted.
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