By Vivek Bhargav
Edward O Wilson, a professor of Sociobiology, in a debate at the Harvard Museum of Natural History on 9 September 2009, said, “The real problem of humanity is the following: we have paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology.” That is, while people are able to quickly know what’s happening across the world in a few seconds, this information from “god-like technology” is being (non)regulated through “medieval institutions” and processed by humans with “paleolithic emotions.” Although people have moved from the binary distinction of “black-and-white” towards “gray,” it is to be acknowledged that there could be “infinite shades of gray,” with shades of gray distinct for each individual, institution, and nation-state.
Social Media’s Potential Impact on Conflict and Discrimination
In a globalized world, the immense influence of social media platforms can inadvertently contribute to the amplification of conflict and discrimination against religious and ethnic groups. This phenomenon is not limited to India but has worldwide implications. While these platforms serve as powerful tools for communication and information sharing, they can inadvertently facilitate the spread of harmful content due to their far-reaching accessibility and ease of use. To address these concerns, social media companies must adopt a sensitive, collaborative, and context-specific approach.
Recognizing the intricate cultural contexts in which content circulates is crucial. This involves training content reviewers to comprehend diverse cultural nuances and avoid hasty judgments that may overlook the complex dynamics of certain events. Collaboration with local experts, including religious leaders and civil society organizations, is therefore pivotal. By engaging with these stakeholders, platforms can gain invaluable insights into the historical, religious, and societal dimensions of sensitive issues. This informed perspective has the potential of enhancing the platform’s ability to understand and mitigate potential impacts on various communities.
Moreover, the linguistic diversity in India, with 22 official languages, necessitates a multilingual approach to content moderation. This ensures accurate assessments that consider contextual factors and reduce the chances of misinterpretation due to language barriers. Empowering users to actively contribute to a safer online environment is essential. User-friendly reporting mechanisms should be established, enabling users to flag potentially harmful content related to religious or ethnic groups. Encouraging users to provide additional context when reporting can assist content reviewers in making well-informed decisions.
In times of crisis, rapid response tools play a vital role. Platforms should have mechanisms to swiftly alert users in affected regions with verified information while simultaneously restricting the dissemination of divisive content. Furthermore, creating dedicated communication channels for local authorities and organizations enhances coordinated efforts to counter harmful content during emergencies.
Localized content policies are paramount. These policies should specifically address the unique challenges posed by religious and ethnic tensions. Clear guidelines on hate speech, incitement, and discrimination must be outlined, supplemented by relevant examples grounded in the Indian context. Ultimately, an open and transparent appeals process is essential. Users should have the ability to contest content removal decisions, ensuring a fair review process, and to offer an opportunity to provide additional context or evidence.
Socio-Political Dynamics of Religious and Ethnic Groups in India
India’s treatment of religious and ethnic groups is deeply influenced by a multifaceted socio-political landscape. This landscape is shaped by historical, cultural, and political factors that impact the interactions between different communities. India’s religious and ethnic diversity is a hallmark of its identity, encompassing a myriad of faiths, including Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, and Buddhism. While this diversity is a source of strength, it also presents frequent challenges, as tensions between different religious groups have led, on multiple occasions, to instances of conflict and violence.
The principle of secularism is enshrined in India’s constitution, which mandates the government to treat all religions equally and avoid favoring any particular faith. Ground realities, though, can drive an opposite dynamic. The Indian government has implemented affirmative action policies to address historical inequalities faced by marginalized groups, such as Scheduled Castes (Dalits) and Scheduled Tribes, yet these themselves have often proved controversial and driven conflict (witness the present roots of the Manipur). Additionally, the recognition of certain religious and ethnic groups as minorities at the national or state level has led to specific protections and benefits under government schemes and programs. Again, that which is meant to address one challenge frequently leads to others.
The judiciary plays a significant role in addressing disputes related to religious and ethnic groups. Landmark cases, such as the Ayodhya dispute underscore the challenge of balancing religious sentiments with legal considerations. Both internationally and domestically, India’s treatment of religious and ethnic groups has come under scrutiny from human rights organizations and relevant social action bodies. The country’s approach to upholding the rights of these groups is closely monitored and evaluated on the international stage. Needless to say, social media both informs and incites. Its compression of time and space has created hitherto unimagined pressures and demands upon efforts at mediation of untoward circumstances.
Need for context-specific approach for social media platforms
Consequently, the Violence and Incitement policy of social media platforms should adopt a thoughtful and balanced approach when addressing content depicting communal violence. This policy should encompass various key considerations:
- A clear and comprehensive definition of violation is essential. The ability to assess content within its context is critical, distinguishing between content that incites violence, glorifies it, or serves legitimate purposes such as news coverage/educational awareness.
- Swift removal of content explicitly calling for violence against religious or ethnic groups is imperative. This includes content that directly instructs or encourages harm.
- Indirect calls for violence through symbolism, imagery, or language should not be overlooked. Such content should also undergo careful review.
- Evaluating potential harm and real-world impact is paramount. Factors such as historical context, ongoing tensions, and the potential to exacerbate violence should be incorporated into the assessment.
- Understanding the intent behind sharing the visual (normally, video) is equally important. Distinguishing between content shared to raise awareness or condemn violence and content shared with malicious intent is crucial.
- Efforts to contextualize the video content, such as providing captions, descriptions, or links to reputable news sources, should be considered when making removal decisions.
- Transparency is a fundamental principle. A clear appeals process must be established, allowing content creators to contest removal decisions with the opportunity to provide additional context or evidence.
Balancing the prevention of offline violence with the principles of freedom of expression requires a nuanced approach. Social media platforms (SMPs) should continuously refine their policies through collaboration with relevant stakeholders to effectively address the complex challenges presented by video content depicting scenes of communal violence.
Engagement with Law Enforcement Agencies and citizens
In the Indian context, adhering to law enforcement requests for content removal that may breach a social media platform’s content rules, even if not violating national laws, demands a delicate balance between upholding platform policies and respecting local regulations and individual freedom. To navigate this challenge, social media platforms may adopt the following strategies:
- Develop transparent and well-defined content rules that outline violations of platform guidelines, ensuring accessibility for users.
- Establish user-friendly reporting mechanisms that allow users to flag content they believe breaches platform policies. Clear guidelines for reporting content that may not infringe on national laws but violates platform rules should be provided.
- Implement a transparent content review process that informs users about the steps involved and potential outcomes. This clarity emphasizes that content removal decisions are based on platform policies rather than legal considerations alone.
- Foster direct communication with law enforcement agencies, fostering collaboration while maintaining the platform’s independence. The platform’s role in addressing law enforcement requests should be clearly defined.
- Consider content labeling in cases where removal may not be warranted but concerns exist. Contextual information can help users understand the content’s nature and intent.
- Ensure a robust appeals process that allows content creators to contest removal decisions. Independent review teams should oversee appeals to ensure impartiality.
- Encourage an ongoing dialogue with relevant government bodies to discuss content policy challenges and potential solutions.
About the author: Vivek Bhargav is a U.S. Exchange Scholar and Teach For India alumnus with interdisciplinary knowledge and experience in politics, public policy, and international affairs. The views expressed in this article are personal and do not represent his position in any of his institutional affiliations. This Policy Brief has been published as part of Mantraya’s ongoing “Fragility, Conflict, and Peace Building” project. All Mantraya publications are peer-reviewed.
Source: This article was published by Mantraya
 Edward O. Wilson 1929–American sociobiologist, Oxford Essential Quotations (4 ed.), ed. Susan Ratcliffe, https://www.oxfordreference.com/display/10.1093/acref/9780191826719.001.0001/q-oro-ed4-00016553.
 “Godlike technology” is a term mentioned by Prof. Edward O Wilson as an analogy to the powers that technology possesses in reference to “god” whose powers are unknown. See Tristan Harris, “Our brains are no match for our technology”, The New York Times, 5 December 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/05/opinion/digital-technology-brain.html.
 22 languages are included in the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution (~20 languages are digitally available), Languages Included in the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution, https://rajbhasha.gov.in/en/languages-included-eighth-schedule-indian-constitution.
 Distribution of Population by Religions, Drop-in-Article on Census – No.4: Census of India 2011 https://censusindia.gov.in/nada/index.php/catalog/40443/download/44077/DROP_IN_ARTICLE-04.pdf
 The Preamble of India, https://secure.mygov.in/read-the-preamble-india/
 Ayodhya Title Dispute – M Siddiq v Mahant Suresh Das, Supreme Court Observer, https://www.scobserver.in/cases/m-siddiq-v-mahant-das-ayodhya-title-dispute-case-background/
 2022 Report on International Religious Freedom: India, Office of International Religious Freedom, https://www.state.gov/reports/2022-report-on-international-religious-freedom/india/