There is a solid reason behind why an increasing number of countries are placing restrictions on their citizens from accessing social media (Elsayed-Ali, 2018). And no, these restrictions don’t come at the cost of free speech and expression, for if social media operates unchecked at its current extent, a country’s national security itself is at risk. While it is important to take into consideration the positive facets of social media use, we also need to be prepared to tackle its negative side: how social media platforms propagate abuse, hate speech, and disorder more intensively than ever before.
In the morning of 29th August 2018, author and filmmaker, Vivek Agnihotri used his Twitter account to ask ‘young, bright people’ to help him make a list of all those supporting ‘Urban Naxals’. This term that he coined is also the title of his popular book and is used to refer to those individuals living in cities and embedded in the mainstream society who indirectly aid movements aimed to weaken or overthrow the government. Shortly after his tweet, over 27,000 Twitter users used the #MeTooUrbanNaxal hashtag to express certain extreme sentiments targeted at Agnihotri, including labelling him a fascist and a Nazi for criticizing those who support underprivileged and marginalized sections of the society.
There are assumptions that have been made by both opposing entities in order to blow the issue out of proportion. Agnihotri claims that all he intended through the list was an academic exercise to highlight patterns in those who support Naxals in urban areas, while the enraged respondents claim that he is calling those who support marginal sections of society or defend free speech as anti-national or urban naxals. This is a quintessential example of how Twitter and other social media can become echo chambers for misinterpretations to thrive and unfounded agitation to be propagated.
“Every remark of mine (on Twitter) was taken out of context in the press and blown up into a political controversy.”
- Shashi Tharoor on being one of the most avid politician Tweeters (Tharoor, 2016).
The first stage of the problem is Twitter’s thirst for sensationalism. As Shashi Tharoor himself articulates the problem through a self-written article on Outlook India, the platform was so boisterous in its misinterpretations that almost every Tweet of his was subject to criticism from thousands. Moreover, it was (and still is) widely accepted that too much Twitter is the path to politicians quitting their jobs. Due to the unprecedented freedom to call out anyone and everyone on the platform, politicians are especially prone to get caught in political clashes. What drives this thirst in Indian Twitter users to defend their political ideologies over the internet?
The seeming anonymity and indirect involvement through a Twitter account appear as a proxy to these groups which they employ to spread unfounded opinions and create issues where there aren’t any. What happens if this sensationalism is directed at issues like the Naxal movement, instead of individual politicians, as has been discussed until this point? Such an indirect agitation about nationally sensitive issues has its repercussions, which may well impact national security in our case.
“An insurgency is as much a reality, as it is the product of myths that the society, unable to comprehend them, weaves around the insurgent.”
In cases of insurgency groups like the Naxalites, the guerrilla movement is aided by a shift in focus from the real issue at hand. If we take to Twitter and label people ‘Urban Naxals’, the might and the extent of influence of the insurgents is clouded. The very definition of who qualifies as a Naxal and how dangerous they are to national security is confused. Hounding students, academics, politicians, and writers as Urban Naxals is an indicator of the state’s failure in comprehending the seriousness of insurgency.
A case in point of the state’s failure to understand free political discourse is the Supreme Court’s decision to put five human rights’ activists under house arrest on August 31st, 2018. According to Senior Advocate Vrinda Grover, this incident is a step towards criminalizing dissent in our society (Mohan, 2018). Furthermore, the arrested individuals were labelled as ‘urban naxals’, even though they had never engaged in any forms of violence. A Naxalite, according to Maoist ideology, is one who engages in violence to practice their political ideology, which clearly is not the case in the arrest.
The continued sensationalization of this term will add an element of uncertainty to the extent of insurgency across the nation. The aforementioned activists were from Delhi, Pune, Chhattisgarh, and so on, but Twitter won’t just be restricted to a few cities. If we let this false notion of a heightened popularity of insurgents in the urban sphere increase if we start labelling every advocate of free speech and democratic values a Naxalite, we’ll be setting the stage for widespread disquiet - a social condition that will invariably support the real insurgents within our nation.
Bhardwaj, A. (2018, August 31). Inventing the Urban Naxal, Indian Express. Retrieved from https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/inventing-urban-naxal-crpf-brodsky-naxal-left-activists-express-columns-5333345/
Elsayed-Ali, S. (2018, February 26). Commentary: How to stop social media from supercharging hate speech, Reuters. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-elsayedali-hatespeech-commentary/commentary-how-to-stop-social-media-from-supercharging-hate-speech-idUSKCN1G72UU
Tharoor, S. (2016, October 06). The Twitter Revolution, Outlook India. Retrieved from https://www.outlookindia.com/magazine/story/the-twitter-revolution/297958
Mohan, S. (2018, August 31). 'Urban Naxals is a term to demonise dissent', BusinessLine. Retrieved from https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/blink/know/urban-naxals-is-a-term-to-demonise-dissent/article24828924.ece
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