Sharing Via WhatsApp, FB Messenger? Think Twice Before You Hit The Send Button

There is a strong public perception that there is a significant amount of surveillance of public as well as private social media interactions, and communications between citizens in India and that these communications could get one into quite a bit of trouble. There have been instances, where people have shared news, made statements against certain political parties, entities or ideologies only to be arrested. Such instances have increased in recent years; all the more reason for us to know what to share or communicate via social media.

Actual arrests for social media posts

Zakir Ali Tyagi spent 42 days in jail. He jested about the Ganga being declared a living entity. He also spoke about BJP’s promise to build a temple in Ajodhya and the Haj subsidy. He was arrested and kept in jail for 42 days before he was released on bail. He has been charged with cheating, sedition and computer-related offences. Another person, Afghan Soni, too was arrested for sharing an allegedly ‘offensive’ video about the PM, where the PM’s question about achchhe din’ is answered by a herd of goats.

S Thirumurugan a 19-year-old was arrested for abusing the PM in a private conversation on Facebook Messenger. The boy is a fan of Southern star Vijay. This happened during the Mersal controversy, where the BJP had protested against certain scenes in the film starring Vijay.

Legal provisions

The draconian section 66A of the IT Act was struck down in 2015 because of the way it was worded; how it gave wide and arbitrary powers for the arrest of anyone deemed to have offended, insulted or hurt others. The widely held view was that the section was used less for fighting cyber crime and more as a weapon of intimidation and control of free speech. In this judgment, Justice R F Nariman referred to the section as unconstitutional and restrictive of people’s right to know.

The provision being misused

While the provision of law is struck down, there have been instances of it still being misused. Even without 66A, several other provisions of the law can be invoked to make arrests: causing offence to religions, fomenting communal hatred, sharing other objectionable material and anything deemed to be seditious can land a person into trouble. Recently cyber sleuths arrested a techie in Chennai for posting child porn on a WhatsApp group. A CRPF jawan and journalist were also arrested in June last year for posting objectionable materials and comments.

Dos and don'ts of social media

  • Don’t forward false information, rumours or anything that is unverified. Be particularly careful if something is inflammatory, hateful or slanted against one or another community. It is easy to confirm whether a story is genuine – check if it is reported by a reputed news house or whether the source is known to be a biased or slanted platform.
  •  Be aware of the provisions of law and be vigilant against their misuse. Remember satire is a legitimate form of expression and is not a criminal act.
  • Anything that stirs religious sensitivities or calls for violence or contains violence, which contains caste or racist slurs, child pornography ought never to be forwarded and is best deleted forthwith.
  • If you feel that something has been forwarded with ulterior motives, you can report this to the relevant authorities (you can report posts on Facebook and ask for them to be removed and can connect to the cyber crimes cell of the local police station to take action).
  • At all times be decent and civil in your social media interactions. If you feel that this is escalating beyond a debate and into an altercation, agree to disagree and end the discussion. Block the other person if they persist.
  • In addition, I have a list of pet peeves in terms of what never to forward but that is more in the nature of personal quirks that actual suggestions.

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