News & Analysis

If Social Distancing is a Norm, Why Not Social Media Quarantine?

Image Courtesy: Morocco World News

The Corona crisis is going to get worse before it gets better. While optimists are hoping for a vaccine this year (some are even hoping for August 2020), most scientists and pharma companies are seeing the earliest vaccine to come out by Spring 2021. Till then, whether or not we like it, we have to learn to live with Covid 19.

However, to my mind, the Covid crisis has two aspects to it and while we are tackling it at the clinical level, we also need to manage the issue at a societal level. The ‘crisis’ probably came from China and spread worldwide, but the fear psychosis and the atmosphere of doom did not come from China.

It came via our social handles – Whatsapp, Facebook, Twitter are the real culprits here. The sheer amount of misinformation that has been spread by ‘Covidiots’ is mind boggling. Suddenly everyone was an expert immunologist or epidemiologist. Everyone of this tribe had a horror story to tell and numbers. As a free for all platform, WhatsApp was the biggest culprit. Without any check whatsoever, rumor mongers continue to have a field day.

Like any extraordinary situation without precedent, the establishment is probably battling it out on a daily basis. And just as physical movement is getting restricted and new physical norms are coming into play, a similar action is required at the digital level. Digital sharing platforms have to be regulated and information going into them and coming out of them needs to be monitored lest it spreads fear and leads to chaos. Just as physical containment is being deemed necessary and individuals are being quarantined, digital quarantine is also necessary.

It sounds draconian and against the very spirit of individual and societal freedom of speech and expressions. But consider this. Isn’t restricting me inside a containment zone forcing me to stay indoors considered necessary to check the spread of the virus? So why would a restriction placed on me on information related to Covid not be seen as an equally important measure to check the spread of mis-information?

Social scientists are already warning us of the issues that individuals and consequently societies are likely to face due to prolonged periods of social restrictions – distancing, work from home and overall depleting social capital due to covid. It probably has a much longer and equally damaging impact on the society and there is an urgent need to ensure that information assaults on the individual and the society are stopped and fast.

The only question is how? Clearly, the corporate entities that own the social platforms are either unwilling or incapable of undertaking the task, either due to revenue concerns or the sheer enormity of the task and a risk of killing the platforms. This has been amply clear in the case of Donald Trump Vs Twitter, where clear fake news put out by the President of the United States is just flagged and not taken down.

Here is where the individual governments must step in. If India can ban Tik-Tok, Weibo et al with a diktat, surely it won’t be difficult for them to issue another diktat banning Facebook, Whatsapp and Twitter. At least till the pandemic reduces in its virulence and intensity. Fake news will reduce, unnecessary panic will come down and the government of the day can then put out information that it wants to to manage the situation.

I know that most people in a free world will find the idea appalling as it goes against the very grain of free speech and democracy. I agree. However, two issues that one has to keep in mind are – one is that extraordinary situations call for extraordinary solutions and a deluge of uncontrolled fake news can only be managed by draconian measures. And two, if we are anyway allowing the government to get away with coming down on anti-CAA demonstrations, Article 370, imposing sedition cases on anti-government verbiage, banning the social media handles is just another step in this line.

Or is there any other way?

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