Chapter Twenty One: Digital War and Peace

When was the last time you heard the word Pegasus? The manner in which human beings consume information, the manner in which news organisations present it and the interests of many powerful stakeholders ensures that some developments in the world are removed from our attention, no matter how important they are for our safety. Pegasus may have vanished from your social media feeds, your newspapers and your TV news channels, but it remains a serious threat that many in the world continue to draw attention to.

Even the Israeli company which created the software finds itself compelled to at least pay lip service to the dangers of snooping. This could, of course, stop selling the software to governments but that's unlikely to happen unless they're forced to. Remember, Pegasus is just one of many softwares out there, we need a complete moratorium on the development and sale of any such software.

Some of you may remember that India's Supreme Court had indicated that it would constitute some sort of a committee to examine the issues raised by the Pegasus scandal. It did not offer any details about the powers and scope of such a committee but those who fight for transparency and freedom still felt heartened by the court's observations.

If you have been wondering what happened to that committee, you're not the only one. Almost three weeks have passed and there has been no further word from the court on this.

In a piece written for The Hindu, lawyer Gautam Bhatia argues that the acts and omissions of the Supreme Court in this matter raises serious concerns. An excerpt from the piece:

"In India, we have a long experience of “death by Committee”: issues that require urgent attention linger for many months in a Committee, and once public memory has dulled, are given a quiet burial. It is vital that this should not happen in the present case. Thus, a direction by the Court to the Government to answer whether it has been spying on citizens not accused of any offence — a direct yes/no question — and, if the answer is yes, to require it to explain why or face legal consequences — would be a good start."

Facebook faces the truth.

If there is ever a week when Facebook is not in the news, understand immediately that one of the following three things has happened: Humanity is extinct, Facebook is dead, the world is a drastically more peaceful place where democracy has a greater chance of thriving.

This week, Facebook continues to be in the news.

Another whistle blower from Facebook has, well, blown the whistle on Facebook. Frances Haughen, a former Facebook employee testified before a senate committee and, inter-alia, claimed that Facebook's products "harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy."

Facebook, needless to add, says that she is lying.

Haughen is not the first whistleblower to expose Facebook.

In The Guardian, author and investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr argues that this time it's different and makes a bold claim-it is the beginning of the end for Facebook. Read her well argued piece here:

We will leave it to you to decide whether it is surprising or unsurprising that there is ZERO discussion among India's elected representatives- whether in State Assemblies or in the Parliament. It is an issue that deeply affects Indians, not just because crores of Indians consume Facebook products also and are subject to the same harm that people in other countries are; not just because Indian democracy is at as much risk of destabilising as other democracies are as a result of Facebook's decisions; not just because Indian children are experiencing the same harm that children in America are but because if Facebook's actions impacting India are not checked in time, the platform will result in the same harm in India that it did in Myanmar and Sri Lanka-mass murder.

Facebook is letting religious hatred fester in India so that it can profit. Haughen's testimony makes specific reference to this. See the following excerpt from a report in The Wire about this:

"In the same complaint, Haugen’s lawyers cite an undated internal company document called ‘Adversarial Harmful Networks – India Case Study’ to show that the company is well aware of the issue of anti-Muslim content, and what it refers to as fear-mongering promoted by pro-RSS users or groups.

“Anti-Muslim narratives targeted pro-Hindu populations with [violent and incendiary] intent… There were a number of dehumanizing posts comparing Muslims to ‘pigs’ and ‘dogs’ and misinformation claiming the Quran calls for men to rape their female family members,” the internal document says.

The document also blames the company’s lack of technical ability to track this type of content in local Indian languages: “Our lack of Hindi and Bengali classifiers means much of this [anti-Muslim] content is never flagged or actioned.”

The report also notes that despite the fact that the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh is violating its policies against hateful content, it is not even designating the group as problematic in any way because of "political sensitivities."

Social media companies claim that they democratise debate and discourse. Haughen's testimony belies this claim. Instead of democratising public dialogue, Facebook is in fact strengthening the existing power hierarchies- political and social. The powerful are getting away, while harm against the vulnerable is being ignored.

To put this in another way, Facebook is providing tools to the powerful to amplify their agenda and propaganda. It is interfering with and rigging democratic dialogue between Indian citizens. It is letting hatred and bigotry flourish in India. India's citizens and institutions must do all they can to stop this before it is too late.

War and Peace

The Nobel Peace Prize this year has been won by dissent- digital as well as analog.

The prize has been won by a news website in Philippines and a newspaper in Russia- both critical of the autocrats in their country, both facing threats and persecution from their governments and both being labeled 'anti-national'. Digital or otherwise, the truth is increasingly being labeled anti-national across the world.

Digital Discrimination

The Indian government is now admitting what many others have been saying for a while. There is a crisis of Digital Discrimination/Divide in India.

Digital Empowerment Foundation

Sunita Nishad, DEF’s Raipur (Chattisgarh) based centre coordinator shares hygiene practices among youth, which are imperative in prevention of the COVID-19.

Read how DEF’s centre in villages of UP helped people to pursue their interests, provided digital training and more. Tap to read stories of Digital Entrepreneurs.

 Here is a glimpse of how DEF’s Corona Warriors are helping curb the spread of COVID-19 via wall messaging.

 Chouttupal (Hyderabad) based Chinna Kondur village is a location of DEF’s centre. Digital tools and access to government’s scheme have been a major force in changing the lives of the people there. Read the entire blog here:


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TypeRight - The Digital Nukkad

TypeRight - The Digital Nukkad, is a weekly conversational bulletin curated through the news and discussions on social media as well as what's happening on the ground. Through the eyes and ears of Digital Empowerment Foundation across rural India and global south, TypeRight aspires to focus on bringing the contextual relevance of digital technologies and developments on the society - both connected and unconnected.