Ever since the advent of the Internet, the transmission of information has revolutionized. This spectrum of information is vast and seemingly never-ending. Social Media, a considerable chunk of a layman’s internet usage witnesses a plethora of activities ranging from sharing controversial news to promoting harmless art. However, for the intents and purposes of this article, I will focus on the former half. Social media platforms make it easier to share information at the same time; people are subject to misinformation and hostile and divisive content being transmitted through the channels by bad actors
Propagation of Hate Speech, especially in a digital format, has become a menacing and recurring phenomenon. This growing black hole of hate obliterates any development made in the right direction. Governments and tech giants have been scurrying to curb this paradox. However, this seemingly simple concept when paired with politicization, freedom of speech and expression, limitations of dissent, and abuse of power, becomes difficult to regulate.
The judiciary often finds itself walking a razor-sharp line between the “rights” and “wrongs” in this context. Social media and its Utility must be balanced.
Since time immemorial, words have held tremendous power. It is first important to understand the concept of “hate speech. Hate speech is described as biased, hostile, and harmful discourse directed at an individual or a group of individuals because of some of their actual or perceived innate traits. It conveys discriminatory, intimidating, disapproving, confrontational, and/or prejudiced attitudes toward gender, race, religion, ethnicity, colour, national origin, disability, or sexual orientation. The 267th Report of the Law Commission of India formally described hate speech as “an incitement to hatred primarily against a group of persons defined in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religious belief, and the like”. Given the true power of words, using words to express hatred is a very deadly weapon for which we are all responsible. As a result, hate speech must be seen as aggressive conduct aimed at disparaging a person or a group based on a trait arbitrarily chosen by the speaker.
Social media acts as an enabler of hateful remarks and incitements to violence because they are disseminated and magnified in ways that were before impossible. Furthermore, the regulations addressing these concerns are insufficient and are dispersed throughout numerous statutes and rules under the Indian Penal Code, the Information Technology Act, and the Criminal Procedure Code.
Freedom Of Expression V hate Speech
Hate speeches have been catching momentum in South Asian countries like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and more over the last decade. Relatively new to the digital bandwagon, each of these countries has quickly developed its own solid, indefatigable, and impenetrable online ecosystem of narratives that's impossible to control and contain. This problem only compounds with the malice of misinformation and lack of proper verification measures in place.
There are four predominant areas where hate speeches tread. This includes targeting the race and ethnic sentiments of a community. Regional and sexual minorities like migrants, refugees, people identifying with the LGBTQI+ community, and women are also seen as easy targets. However, it is the fault lines at the frontier of political and religious ideologies that are most often exploited.
Countries like the USA are already cognizant of the adverse impacts of hate speech. The widely regarded First amendment to the constitution of the US has the notions of hate speech under its ambit. As early as 1996, the USA had enacted the Communications Decency Act, which enabled some form and measure of protection against online expressions of hate.
India too has taken some strides in this regard. In a 2020 Supreme court verdict, the judges equated hate speech with the violation of human unity, fraternity, and dignity. And since they form a crucial part of an individual's right to life and liberty as enshrined under Article 21 of the constitution, they deemed hate speech as essentially detrimental to human independence.
Per the court, “Hate speech lays the groundwork for later, broad attacks on the vulnerable that can range from discrimination to ostracism, segregation, deportation, violence and, in the most extreme cases, to genocide.”
However, the lack of a definition of what constitutes hateful content in India often leaves a lot of grey areas for detection. Even where sections of the Indian Penal Code attempt to put together a meaningful description, it's vague and blurry. The fundamental issue is not just the unavailability of requisite laws, but a serious lacking in their interpretation and implementation.
Take Section 295A for instance, which prohibits deliberate intentions to hurt the religious feelings of a community. Or section 505(2), which bans publication and dissemination of any written word or statement that could potentially drive hatred between different members. While these provisions sit at the fence of hate speech, they are inadequate in terms of directly targeting it.
In India, one of the provisions under which hate speech is prohibited is Section 153A and B. However, the former is about discouraging “disharmony” and “enmity” between different sections of society. This leans dangerously on the cliffs of subjectivity since it is solely a matter of individual opinion on what they construe as offensive and inciting. Given the politicization and polarization, the country has undergone, expediency towards a certain political party plays a huge role in manipulating this “subjectivity”. Over the last decade, the quantum of cases filed under this section has burgeoned beyond imagination. Registering a 500% rise in 7 years, the caseload currently stands at 1804. This was a mere 323 in 2014.
India also has an anti-blasphemy law. However, more often than not, it has been weaponized to target the dissenters, critiques, and those asking questions. An underlying theme that has haunted all regulations and laws pertaining to hate speech in India is that it is skewed disproportionately towards those who take offense. Sadly, it gives them the power to shut down what they find disturbing not just for themselves, but decide on behalf of others too.
Over the years, endeavours have been made to bring about changes in these laws. In 2019, the Viswanathan Committee proposed inserting sections that cover incitement to commit a crime on grounds of religion, race, caste or community, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, place of birth, residence, language, or more. It also suggested levying a fine of Rs 5,000, along with 2-year imprisonment.
In 2014, the Bezbaruah committee recommended amending 153 C of IPC. This deals with the promotion of acts that violate human dignity. The committee viewed a five-year term, along with a fine as appropriate punishment for this. It also suggested amendments to Section 509 of the Indian Penal Code, which deals with actions and words intended to racially insult a member punishable by 3 years and a fine. Instances of hate speeches in the country, particularly by influential political and religious leaders are rampant.
Per data shared by Information and Broadcasting Ministry, during the last 3 years and to date, there have been 163 cases of provocative television debates and hate speeches where warnings, apology scrolls, and advisories have been issued. However, ironically, Anurag Thakur, who heads the Ministry of Sports, Youth Affairs, and Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has been charged with delivering hate speeches and inciting people to attack CAA-NRC protestors.
Currently serving their second tenure, the present government’s ascent to power in 2014 has seen a marked rise in the increase of polarized, divisive, and vehemently vocal expressions of hate. This was conclusively proven by NDTV’s VIP hate speech tracker. Active since 2009, it has been chronicling hateful, communal, and violent remarks glibly passed by political honchos
The incidences of hate speech have skyrocketed as much as 1310% since 2014. Under the UPA government, which lasted between 2009-14, there were 19 cases, averaging 0.3 instances a month. But since 2014, the number has exponentially risen to 348. This pushes the monthly average to 3.7 cases.
It is no secret that social media has become a toxic hotbed, an unending wasteland of such expressions. With 241 million Meta users, India is one of the biggest, most thriving markets for many social media platforms. Of late, there has spiked hateful media and violent content on both Facebook and Instagram. A report by Meta suggests 37.82% of social media-driven hate speech. This figure escalates to 86% on Instagram, an application predominantly used by youngsters. Per Meta, India features high on the list of “at-risk countries”. Hindi has been identified as one of the main languages perpetrating hostile speeches on social media platforms.
Drawing a distinction between legal freedom of speech and hate speech is necessary for regulating damaging communication in online settings. Most countries' constitutions, as well as the major international human rights treaties, provide freedom of expression. Of course, we all know that, despite this extensive protection, many countries fail to give sufficient speech protection. One of the risks of banning hate speech on the Internet is that it will serve as a justification for repressive regimes to further restrict citizens' rights. Article 19(1) (a) of the Constitution of India states that “all citizens shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression”. But where do recourse and remedy begin?