Social Media Weaponisation: How India Can Scrutinise The Tech Giants 

by Tushar Gupta - Jul 19, 2019 10:50 AM +05:30 IST
Social Media Weaponisation: How India Can Scrutinise The Tech Giants TikTok Logo
  • The members of ‘Team 07’ were in the headlines for selling the idea of communal revenge via the TikTok social media platform.

    When a few members of the Parliament termed TikTok as a vulgar and indecent platform, their fears were not entirely misplaced.

    India must not shy away when it comes to arm-twisting the social media giants to safeguard its interests, and in this, it must learn from China.

Collectively known as ‘Team 07’, the five members of this viral TikTok group, a few days ago, made it to the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

With a collective following of over 50 million users on TikTok alone, it is not uncommon for such social media ‘influencers’ to make the news, for they are routinely hired by established brands from India and abroad to endorse products, gadgets, and even sell vacation trips. However, the members of ‘Team 07’ were in the headlines for selling the idea of communal revenge.

Citing the death of Tabrez Ansari, who was recently lynched to death by a mob in Jharkhand, ‘Team 07’ recorded a video stating that if the children of Ansari grew up and avenged the death of their father then it should not be said that a Muslim is a terrorist.

The audio from the recorded video was picked up by multiple user accounts, each recording their own version. ‘Team 07’ itself had its members recording different versions with the same audio. Thus, what should have been a thoughtful condolence message from an influencer account, turned out to be a license to spew venom across communal fault lines and to weaponise social media.

India’s Online Universe

In terms of absolute numbers, India is expected to have over 600 million active Internet users by the end of 2019. Of these 600 million, close to 300 million reside in urban India while more than 200 million are from rural India. For this Internet population of 600 million, mobile phones are used by over 97 per cent of the 500-odd million to access the Internet.

Of the 2.3 billion global Facebook users, close to 250 million are from India. Twitter has managed to get around 35 million users from India itself. Of the billion users on Instagram, somewhere between 8 to 10 per cent are from India alone. However, the biggest beneficiary from the Jio revolution has been YouTube.

The world’s biggest YouTube channel in terms of subscribers is T-Series with 105 million subscribers. If the regional channels of T-Series are also accounted for, they have a subscriber count of over 200 million.

YouTube in India, however, is much more than T-Series and other media and music companies. With an estimated 260 million viewers in India, the music and media company attracts only one-fifth of the audience.

Hotstar, the leader of streaming services in India, is also making headway amongst urban and rural Internet users. Earlier this month, in the World Cup semi-final game between India and New Zealand, Hotstar registered a peak concurrent user count of more than 25 million. For IPL 2019 alone, Hotstar had over 300 million users across the duration of the tournament — a mammoth 74 per cent jump from last year.

However, it is TikTok that is now gaining big numbers quickly. Given that the intellect framework of Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter may not appeal to the rural population, TikTok has enabled a digital social stage for India’s rural population.

It is not uncommon to come across TikTok videos circulated on other social media platforms where rural Internet users are showcasing their acting prowess with regional music and cringey songs and dialogues from low-budget local movies.

In the first quarter of 2019 alone, TikTok added close to 90 million new Indian users onto its platform. Today, the estimated TikTok user count in India is more than 125 million. In terms of growth, TikTok is far ahead than any other social networking platform.

The above numbers indicate the growth, scale, and reach of Internet in India. Offline, India has a population of 1.3 billion, but online it has already breached the 500 million mark. India’s TikTok population alone is more than that of 120 countries around the globe.

If India’s social media population alone was a country, it would be the fourth biggest in the world — behind China, India, and United States — and set to surpass the last in a few weeks.

Digital India: A Lot That Can Go Wrong

For an optimist, the above numbers may amount to tremendous opportunities in the realm of e-commerce, digital economy, and a lot more, and rightfully so. However, monitoring social networking websites, the content which is created and circulated, and governing the millions of anti-social elements that may use such platforms for exploiting socio-economic fault lines is also a significant concern.

Thus, when a few members of the Parliament termed TikTok as a vulgar and indecent platform, their fears were not entirely misplaced. Congress Member of Parliament (MP) Shashi Tharoor, Telugu Desam Party’s Jayadev Galla, Biju Janata Dal’s Pinaki Misra, and Bharatiya Janata Party’s Dharambir Singh had already raised concerns against the Chinese platform.

On Sunday (14 July), the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, wrote a letter to the Indian Prime Minister calling for a ban on TikTok, citing the video from ‘Team 07’ as an example of the anti-national content that was being circulated across the platform and how it posed a threat to the social fabric of the nation.

In retrospect, the actions of ‘Team 07’ and an actor calling out 40 crore legal and illegal Muslims to riot may seem trivial when compared to how ISIS weaponised social media (read all about it here). However, given that India alone will add more Internet users in the next five years than the population of the United States, the government must be mindful of what all can go wrong online.

Firstly, as was in the case of The Clanging of the Swords- IV, a movie released by ISIS in 2014 prior to its capture of Mosul, Iraq’s second-biggest city, a well-scripted and choreographed sequence of events can be used to incite violence and create an atmosphere of fear across the country. For instance, a fake lynching video may be used to incite riots by one religious community against the other.

Secondly, the unintentional spread of sensitive information. Often, well-intending Samaritans share videos that may be communally provocative to bring it to the notice of policymakers, journalists, and law-enforcement agencies. And often, cyber-crime cells are not able to act promptly against such content and this results in the further spread of the propaganda. This was a tactic successfully used by ISIS against the media in the West, and the same was witnessed when users online shared the video from ‘Team 07’.

Three, the issue of fake news. The government, last year, woke up to the potential damage that could be caused via fake news on WhatsApp. With 800 million projected Internet users in India alone by 2022, the challenge would be to curb the fake news. Often, more than the messenger like ‘Team 07’, it is the message that causes the damage.

Four, rioting. Groups on WhatsApp and Telegram are now being used to collect people within a short span of time. Thus, a fake short video or news report could cause a critical law and order situation. As elaborated in one of the other Swarajya reports, the use of digital space to facilitate mob violence is becoming common.

Five, fear and intimidation. More than the fake news, it is the narrative built around that fake report that sparks a conflict. Using a fake report as a basis, users may engage in communal provocation on any of the social media platforms, thus resulting in a chain of events that may end in violent consequences in many parts of India.

Six, the speed with which information travels. Given the speed at which an account can be created on any social networking site and the format in which digital content is created, circulation is simple and quick.

A provocative video on TikTok can be easily and quickly uploaded to Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and other networks. This poses a significant challenge to the curbing of hate speech online.

Even though the video recorded by ‘Team 07’ was taken down by law enforcement agencies, the same video can be found today on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, uploaded by countless gullible fans of ‘Team 07’.

More than the messenger or the medium, it is the message that poses a threat to the social fabric of our nation, and therefore, the government must step up to the challenges of having 800 million online users.

Preparing for the Weaponisation of Social Media

India must draw lessons from ISIS and recent occurrences to establish a framework to deal with the weaponisation of social media. Here’s how it may go about doing it.

One, design an elaborate framework to define hate speech online. The most common problem in dealing with hate speech online is the lack of clarity on what constitutes hate speech in the first place.

Thus, what may actually be a communal provocation may come across as angry criticism to many. The government, in partnership with various social networks, must set up a body that defines hate speech, taking into consideration the socio-economic situation in India.

Two, awareness. The next obvious and easiest step for the Government of India (GOI) is to generate awareness against hate speech. The GOI must involve celebrities and other social media influencers from different communities, regions, and industries to create a widespread awareness against hate speech and for building online ethics.

The campaign must transcend geography, rural-urban divide, and bridge the linguistic gap. Given that India will add 500 million new Internet users in the next decade, a prolonged campaign would serve GOI well, especially in rural regions, similar to the TV campaigns for HIV/AIDS and Polio.

Three, a revamp of the task force to deal with social media weaponisation. By 2025, policing will have to be viewed on two fronts, that of 1.3 billion in the real-world, and that of 800 million people in the online world.

Given how understaffed the state police departments are, it would be a blunder to assume that the cyber-crime branch can work as a mere extension of the existing departments. In order to curb the spread of digital violence, a dedicated digital task force, under the existing police departments is warranted.

A dedicated task force is essential for many reasons. Firstly, they will be able to address online complaints almost instantly, similar to what the likes of Swiggy, Airtel, and Zomato are able to accomplish today. Secondly, it will enable the elimination of content, if necessary, within the first few hours, and not after a longer duration as was with the case with the video from ‘Team 07’. It is imperative to understand that more than the messenger, it is the message that poses considerable threat.

Four, the dedicated online task force must also include digital publishing and social media experts, journalists, fact-checkers, legal experts, and experts working for the cause of women, child, and other backward castes and tribes in the country.

This would enable clarity in the identification of hate speech, fair evaluation of any user account accused of propagating hate speech and to draw the essential line between what constitutes as freedom of speech and expression and what is hate speech.

Lastly, social networking platforms need to set up shop in India. A few scattered offices in New Delhi or Mumbai are not enough. India, as a market, is indispensable to any social networking company in the upcoming decade, and therefore, India must learn to dictate terms, or perhaps, take a cue from China on how to protect its national interests.

To begin with, there must be a dedicated staff of each social network operating in India to work with the law enforcement agencies on a real-time basis. The criteria for the number of offices and staff workers must be derived from the current market of the platform.

For instance, for every five million active users in India, a platform may employ at least 20 people to work with law enforcement agencies to tackle and monitor hate speech. Thus, for a platform like TikTok, which has over 100 million users in India alone, you would have 400 people from TikTok itself monitoring hate speech appearing on their platform.

Further, to ensure that various state police departments are able to work with employees of a social network, the workforce must be distributed across offices across India. For instance, for every ten million users, a social network may be asked to have a new office in a new state.

Thus, to curtail the circulation of a video similar to what ‘Team 07’ created, there would be 400 employees of TikTok and a dedicated online task force from the state police department. This would enable the elimination of an anti-social message before it goes viral.

The primary priority must be to eliminate the message across all platforms and in every form, and then have the user accounts suspended for creating or circulating such content permanently, as only that would serve as an ideal lesson for other online miscreants.

Any social networking platform that resists the government’s order of setting up offices in India must be given a three-to-six months window to implement the order, or else be banned. TikTok reported a daily loss of $500,000 during its brief ban in India, and therefore, going forward, no platform would want to endanger its revenue stream by having its shop shut in the biggest online market of the world.

Final Word

India must not shy away when it comes to arm-twisting the social media giants to safeguard its interests, and in this, it must learn from China.

TikTok is the first of many innovations in the realm of social networking, and therefore, banning it will not solve the real problem. The government cannot go on a banning spree for every social media network that comes up in the future. The unlawful actions of a few thousand must not impact a digital medium used by millions. The problem lies in the message and the messenger, and not the medium.

According to a recent report, a member of the ‘Team 07’ along with the same actor who called out 40 crore Muslims, residing legally and illegally in India, to riot (the video has not yet been taken down), were mocking the Mumbai Police for their inability to act against them.

Given the video propagating the idea of inflicting violence to avenge the death of Tabrez Ansari is online even today across various social networking sites, their mockery serves the GOI a critical reminder as to why the weaponisation of social media must be urgently addressed.

This article is the second in a two-part series on social media weaponisation. Read the first part here.

Tushar is a senior-sub-editor at Swarajya. He tweets at @Tushar15_
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