Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Opinion | The hazards of a world that’s virtually got blown to bits

Truth needs to rout falsehood on the internet if social media is to redeem itself and save India from civil strife

Now that we are officially in the age of post-truth, even hindsight can’t be classified as 20:20. The past doesn’t just haunt this country, much of it seems to have got faked so deeply among so many that our very idea of India may have gone blurry. As for the future, it looks shrouded in such a haze that it would be foolhardy to hazard a guess on the odds of a true recovery. Satyamev Jayate? Ahem, er… hmmmm.

The irony of it is that this was meant to be the information age, ushered in by bits and bytes, 0s and 1s, and logic drawn from clarity on true versus false. It was bandied about as a revolution far more profound than any other, out to herald an enlightened era, no less. But the optimism of that heady phase in the early 1980s, with Steve Jobs’ call for a computer for everyone and Ridley Scott’s smash hit of an ad campaign to liberate people from the tyranny of a big exalted frame, seems like la-la-land naiveté nowadays. Why, even Michael Jackson’s Thriller appears to have aged better.

As the internet rages with the fake and the furious, it’s not as if we weren’t warned of the creepy aspects of a data blast. In 2008, about four years after a social network surfaced from a college dorm that would take locker-room talk online, link people across time and space, web its way around the world, and watch its value skyrocket in a winner-takes-all business, Blown To Bits: Your Life, Liberty, And Happiness After The Digital Explosion issued a cautionary note. Authored jointly by Hal Abelson, Ken Ledeen and Harry Lewis, it placed the perils of a privacy invasion in the spotlight. “It is now possible, in principle, to remember everything that anyone says, writes, sings, draws, or photographs. Everything," went its preface. “If digitized, the world has enough disks and memory chips to save it all, for as long as civilization can keep producing computers and disk drives. Global computer networks can make it available everywhere in the world, almost instantly. And computers are powerful enough to extract meaning from all that information, to find patterns and make connections in the blink of an eye."

If an alarm needed to be sounded over a power grab in cyberspace, it was duly done last year by The Age Of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight For A Human Future At The New Frontier Of Power. Written by Shoshana Zuboff, this critique of an emergent futures market for our projected online behaviour lays bare the menace of “a new economic order that claims human experience as free raw material for hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction, and sales".

What any pursuit of data supremacy enabled by an online snoopfest would imply to our lives is worth worrying about, no doubt, but, given what’s going on in India right now, greater anxiety ought to attend the fallout of social media on popular notions of truth. On a thin but diverse sample of random rants that got swiped around in the past four weeks, it fast seems to be turning into the most grievous casualty of a cyberwar. Callers for calm have got trolled, gas-lit and sea-lioned, even as our prospects of peace suddenly look no less dicey than those of prosperity.

For too long have we deluded ourselves that all the animus in evidence online would not roil the country’s civil life. Well, it already has. The Indian government’s response has been to flay “rumours" and let local authorities snap off the internet in zones they deem volatile. It also has a data regulation law on its way that would give it the authority to keep online activity under watch. Does such an approach work? It would be a surprise if it did. To the extent that arbitrary supervision might choke innovation and cramp individual liberty, a web under a statist scanner would probably worsen rather than resolve the crisis. After all, at the heart of an economy is what we collectively value, and what we cannot count is often far more valuable than what we can. Internet freedom may be abstract, but it’s crucial to our life and times. A fundamental right it most certainly is, as affirmed on Friday by the Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, the youth ferment that has been gaining currency in urban spaces would suggest that Justice, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity retain their appeal as values held aloft by our bond of national unity, the Constitution. A secular upsurge in their favour across the country ought to be seen as a bulwark against anarchy (or worse), a satya graha of sorts, given the strife that lurks in ruptured inter-faith relations.

As I see it, that rift is at its most dangerous in seven decades, and I shudder to estimate how many WhatsApp chats out there need to hunker down. If the tirades of troll armies are fed by a shadowy cabal of spinmeisters, as suspected, then they ought to ask themselves whether a mutually assured flare-up would serve anybody’s interests at all.

In saner spaces, a flurry of talks among Indians of divergent minds would help, especially across the most glaring split. Thankfully, reconciliatory initiatives have begun. But the corporate honchos who run the apps that have almost a billion thumbs in their thrall must chip in too. They could surely find a way to aid these peace efforts (without snooping on users). It’s the least they could do to redeem social media.

Among the campaigns crying out for air is one on truth versus falsehood, the binary that led the rise of rationality over the past millennium or so. No quest for truth can get too far without an outright dismissal of what’s false. On this, let’s all turn our online thumbs up.

Aresh Shirali is Mint views editor