Spread of Censorship in South Asia

The last few years have seen almost a global realization of the political impact social media can have on the political process. While social media from its inception has often been criticized for its time-wasting capabilities or its role in damaging its users’ mental health, it is only recently that attention has been given to its role in influencing elections. While there are a wide variety of social media networks, chief among them is Facebook, which owns popular social media networks such as WhatsApp and Instagram in addition to its namesake. Facebook especially came under criticism for its actions during the U.S. 2016 elections, which many interpreted as being complicit with Russian attempts to influence the elections. Since then, Facebook has undertaken multiple initiatives to combat fake/inflammatory news on its various social media platforms, to differing levels of success.

However, this recent global ‘awareness’ of fake news has provided governments across South Asia with an opportunity to enact pieces of legislation that are seen by many as veiled attempts at censoring political opposition and dissent. This worrying trend comes as democracies around the world are under siege and are struggling to maintain their stability.

India prides itself as the world’s largest democracy, and it has conducted free and fair elections in a country with more than a billion people, no small feat. However, recent legislation proposed by the current government has many worried that India could be moving in the direction of Chinese censorship. Under the proposed new rules, Indian officials could compel global tech giants such as Facebook and Twitter to remove posts that the officials determine are hateful or deceptive. Internet providers would also be required to incorporate automated screening tools to prevent Indians from viewing “unlawful information or content”, which many have pointed out is similar to Chinese censorship of events such as the Tiananmen Square Massacre. The Indian government has claimed that these new powers are designed to combat false and illegal information and hold these tech companies more accountable. However, the timing of the proposed new rules (introduced in the run-up to what appears to be a hotly-contested election) and the recent arrest of an Indian politician who posted a insulting cartoon of Prime Minister Modi has many critics claiming these measures are a clampdown on free speech. Some speculate that the administration is attempting to gain these new powers to censor criticism to boost their re-election chances.

While these measures seem extreme, India has been deeply affected by fake news on a societal level. WhatsApp is extremely popular in India, boasting over 200 million users. However, WhatsApp has also been used by some to create massive mobs in India that enact a vigilante justice, which often result in innocent deaths. With this violence often adopting a sectarian element (Hindus vs Muslims), it is crucial that the government takes steps to prevent this violence from taking place. WhatsApp has taken action itself designed to prevent such things, such as limited the amount of people users can forward messages to and changing its terms of service to combat accounts that engage in inflammatory behavior. However, a senior executive at WhatsApp announced a few weeks ago that political parties in India were engaging in similar tactics, such as spreading false news through automated tools. Carl Woog, head of communications for WhatsApp, told reporters that WhatsApp must make it clear that they are not to be used a broadcasting platform.

In Nepal, the government tabled draft legislation to punish ‘improper’ social media posts, with up to five years in jail and a $13,000 fine if the post is deemed defamatory or against national sovereignty. Critics were quick to label the proposal as an attempt to prevent criticism of the communist government, while government officials claimed the bill was to ensure data and internet security. The communist government has a history of stifling dissent, with a recent law barring civil servants from criticizing policies on social media tabled earlier in the month. The government has defended these bills by presenting them as necessary measures against the ‘evils’ of the giant global tech companies, but it is important to take into account the government’s recent history of censorship. 

Bangladesh has enacted the most draconian measures censuring freedoms of speech, to the extent that an increasing number of reporter and journalists have taken to censoring themselves to avoid arrest. The Digital Security Act outlaws obtaining papers, information, or pictures from government offices without official consent, making investigative journalism virtually impossible. With the recent election in Bangladesh having multiple occurrences of abuses and possible illegal activity, the importance of a free press becomes all the more apparent. Facebook and Twitter also stated that they removed accounts linked to the government that posted fake anti-opposition content, yet another example of the government’s troublesome behavior in the recent election.

While internet censorship is a dangerous path for governments to head down, as censoring free speech is something no democratic government should pursue, social media, especially Facebook, has been blamed for the surge of ethnically/religiously-motivated violence across South Asia. Facebook was briefly banned outright in Sri Lanka after it was accused of fueling violence between the majority Buddhist and minority Muslim and Christian populations. UN human rights investigator Yanghee Lee also stated that Facebook played a significant role in spreading hate speech in Myanmar against the Rohingya. Whatsapp has allowed mobs to form incredibly quickly in India that often result in deaths of the accused, innocent or guilty. People take advantage of underlying racial, ethnic, or religious tensions and fears to provoke violent action. Clearly action needs to be taken by Facebook and other social media companies to combat fake news and prevent violence, but putting wide-reaching censorship power into the hands of governments is not a viable solution for stable democracies.