The freedom of expression on social media channels has always been a bone of contention between activists and the government of India. People love to express themselves on various social channels like Facebook, Whatsapp, Instagram, Connect app, and Twitter and sometimes they are also quite vocal about their political views. On most occasions, users normally post their routine views, but in few cases, they become quite severe in their criticism of authorities. Governments are aware of the immense power and reach that social media has among masses, and try hard to maintain a good reputation on social media. Both have different expectations from social media which is often the point of confrontation, because on one side, users don’t like their right of expression to be curtailed, while the government also doesn’t take lightly to criticism because it affects their popularity.
In order to control the adverse publicity, previously the government usually resorted to arbitrary use of internet laws of India like Section 66A of the IT Act, 2000. According to this act, anyone who used a digital device for posting offensive material on the internet for causing disturbance, hatred, and animosity was liable to be punished with imprisonment. It was a favourite tool that the government used to suppress dissent. But in 2015 the Supreme Court of India scrapped this law after a petition was filed in the apex court. Before we go any further
And discuss the issue in detail; let’s try to understand the idea of social media and freedom of speech.
Idea of Social Media
Social media is a digital platform that uses the internet to provide news, updates, pictures, videos, and music. It’s basically the virtual avatar of traditional media like newspapers, tabloids, magazines, radio, and television. It uses hand held devices like mobile phones, tablets. Laptops or even desktops to communicate content and create an interactive dialogue among users. You can make friends, professional contacts, post comments, reviews, or exchange messages. It fulfills the primal needs of human beings of being noticed and appreciated.
Although social media made its appearance in the late 90s and in the beginning of the new millennium, the massive growth happened only after smartphones appeared and became more affordable. This had a monumental effect on the growth of social media that increased its popularity among masses. Mobile phones together with the affordable internet data pack redefined the right of expression on social media.
Social Media and Freedom of Expression:
Freedom of speech on social media broadly means that every user can freely express his or her views without any fear of censorship, and undue interference from outside. Moreover, the government should also ensure their protection from threats and persecutions from the concerned authorities. Our Constitution through Article 19 (1) (a) gives the right of expression to its people, which is also considered a fundamental right. But no law is absolute, and the same is true of right of expression. Every right comes with certain responsibilities. Therefore, freedom to express on social media doesn’t mean that users can post anything they like. Social media has a wide reach, and whatever is posted on these platforms are consumed by millions of viewers. Therefore, it’s important for users to restrain themselves on social media, because one adverse post can create havoc with the peace and tranquility of society.
Social Media has now become a useful medium for users to express their views and share ideas with others. In the last few years, not only in India but around the world, people are vociferously raising their voices against inequality, injustice, and human rights issues. They know that with the help of social media, they can spread their messages across the country and seek justice for the persecuted and downtrodden class. Social media is also an excellent tool to make the government aware of how its various policies are being implemented and whether benefits are reaching the targeted group or not.
During the current pandemic, Social media provided an excellent platform to people to express their concerns to authorities. In the past, it successfully raised many social issues like honour killing, child trafficking, drug abuse, child marriages, and eve teasing.
It was because of social media that we learned about the pathetic conditions of government schools, hospitals and public offices. Few years back, a post on Facebook went viral about a government hospital in Odisha. It was about how after being denied an ambulance, the dead body of the wife was being carried on shoulders by the husband. In another post, we learned how government schools in Bihar function without even a single teacher, and how in the name of free midday meals, little children are served with rotten food.
Indian social media also highlighted the functioning of government offices in the state of UP. In one of the video posts, it was shown how shabbily common people are treated in government offices. They were asked for bribes even for legitimate works. Government officials were mostly found missing from their cabins during office hours, and it is almost impossible for poor citizens to get their routine work done in these offices.
Social media remains the most powerful medium for people’s right of expression. However, it’s also widely used for spreading fake news and misinformation. In such cases, no government can sit idle because it’s their responsibility to maintain peace and amity in the society. At the same time there are instances where the government deliberately infringes on people’s rights by using draconian laws.
Social media users also need to restrain their urge to post anything. The most important thing they need to ensure is the authenticity of the information they are planning to put on the social media platform. What we need is a balance between users’ legitimate rights of expression, and control by the government as per laws of land. However, differences of opinion can still occur, and it’s up to the judiciary of the country to bring a sense of fair play.