Distraction Free Reading

Regulating Misinformation from the Global South

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Gathering information through our devices. Photo credit: https://unsplash.com

India is among the top three internet markets internationally with nearly seven hundred million users. What can debates in India about protecting user privacy under right-wing authoritarian political regimes highlight about social media platforms and the spread of misinformation? In February 2021, the Indian Information Technology, Law and Justice Minister announced wide-ranging regulations over social media firms, streaming services, and digital news outlets that require firms to enable traceability of end-to-end encrypted messages, acknowledge takedown requests of unlawful, misleading, and violent content within twenty-four hours, and deliver a complete redressal within fifteen days. Less sensitive cases, such as those engaging explicit sexual content, are required to be removed within twenty-four hours, and companies are required to establish local offices staffed with senior officials to deal with law enforcement and user grievances. These new regulations pose new challenges for technology giants which count India, Asia’s third-largest economy, as a key overseas market. These gains increasingly struggle with Prime Minister Modi’s government as his promise of muscular economic progress increasingly reveals itself to be ambivalent economic nativism.

In the wake of these regulations, technology companies have framed India as an idiosyncratic cultural and political context, which undermines otherwise unquestionable ideals in computing such as the protection of user privacy–the mandated traceability initiative seriously compromises measures such as end-to-end encryption promised by platforms like WhatsApp. It is unsurprising then that WhatsApp was the first to file a lawsuit against the Indian government seeking to block these new regulations, arguing that they are unconstitutional and fundamentally undermine the right to privacy, and effectively mandate “a new form of mass surveillance.” Free-speech lawyers also insisted that the government had no legal basis to ask social media platforms to remove that content, which could apply to news reports and scientific discussions about the novel coronavirus in India.

Regulatory legal revisions are not being proposed in India alone. A few months after regulations were announced in India, US President Joe Biden accused platforms like Facebook of killing people by allowing COVID-19 misinformation to spread through their services. The United States has begun to call for a reevaluation of Section 230 which protects technology companies from lawsuits over content generated by users on their sites allows by allowing for “good faith” measures to moderate content on their platforms, enabling them to take down content they consider violent, obscene or harassing without fear of legal retribution. These calls are also echoed in developments in Germany, whose NetzDG law mandates removal of illegal content within 24 hours, and Australia, which penalizes social networks for the untimely removal of abusive and violent posts.

Yet the regulations in India have been singled out as censorious threats to a liberal ideal of free speech and a technocratic ideal of user privacy rather than contextualized in a larger global context in which the lines between political speech, hate speech, and misinformation have been blurred under conservative political regimes. As social media platforms are drawn into battles with local authorities, discussions of this suite of regulations echo older laments about an insurmountable lack in the Indian public sphere, wherein liberal ideals of free speech are unrealizable due to the exceptional nature of a public that is incapable of regulating itself without censorship. Moreover, these developments are read against a backdrop of right-wing autocratic control over free press and media as signs of digital censorship akin to contexts such as Russia and China, which threaten the very foundation of free expression online. Within India, advocates for a free internet note that the new rules came shortly after Twitter refused to comply with the Indian government’s order to muzzle accounts that were critical of the country’s new agriculture reforms, which sparked weeks of farmer protests as well as social media backlash against international celebrities like Rihanna and Greta Thunberg when they voiced their support for Indian protestors. These regulations have been cast as efforts at exerting control over citizens’ dissent and free speech online, and erosion of India’s storied yet contradictory self-image as the world’s largest democracy: despite claims of recent attempts at censorship to be novel assaults on democratic ideals, India leads the world in internet shutdowns to curb dissent or protests against the government.

Fears that regulations will further enable an autocratic environment are not entirely unfounded; yet, simply characterizing them as deficits hindering liberal computing success elides their exemplification of key debates on the role of social media in the spread of misinformation. Indeed, free internet advocates in India also affirm the need for a regulatory middle ground whose success will hinge on transparent collaboration between governments and social networks and the role of transnational civil society in determining the legality and proportionality of content takedown measures.

Anthropologists Sareeta Amrute and Luis Murillo remind us that engaging with computing cultures in the Global South mandates writing against a narrative of Southern deficit. Such an approach recognizes that within developmental narratives, the South is invariably cast as catching up with the North, diminishing the active role of Global South actors and geographies in the development of computing technologies. Such a deficit model valorizes the promise of computing as a future utopia once technologies are divorced from their problematic pasts and present harms, and refuses to recognize hierarchies of power within and across geopolitical and economic formations. Viewed through such a lens of deficit, the regulatory developments in India can only be seen as assaults on Western liberal computing culture centering on the protection of user rights and free speech. However, in what follows, I show how they enable us to interrogate data privacy rights and free speech as enshrined protections of users’ individual rights, as well as unravel foundational assumptions undergirding social media and liberal computing culture in the age of misinformation.

End-to-End Encryption: Data Security versus Data Privacy

WhatsApp’s suit in India presses the Delhi High Court to declare one of the new IT regulations to be a violation of privacy rights in the Indian Constitution as it requires social media companies to identify the “first originator of information” when authorities demand it. WhatsApp definitively states privacy and security to be foundational to the platform, ensured by end-to-end encryption.

At the beginning of 2021, WhatsApp updated its terms of use and privacy policy, which inadvertently highlighted its policy of sharing user data with parent company Facebook. For users, accepting the privacy policy changes would mean that communications on WhatsApp will still be end-to-end encrypted by default. Meanwhile, it would continue to share user account information like phone numbers, logs of the length of use, device identifiers, IP addresses, and other device details as well as transaction and payment data, cookies, and location information, all of which have been shared with Facebook since 2016. Refusal to accept the new privacy policy update would impede users, resulting in a severely diminished experience, after which WhatsApp would shut down the account.

Though WhatsApp’s suit centers on new regulations’ erosion of user privacy, it might be more accurate to parse a distinction between data privacy and data security. WhatsApp’s end-to-end encryption safeguards data security alongside other measures such as access control, encryption, and network security to prevent unauthorized access to digital data, intentional or unintentional alteration, deletion or disclosure of data. It focuses on the protection of data from malicious attacks and prevents the exploitation of data stolen through breaches or cyber-attacks. Data Privacy, on the other hand, focuses on individual rights, the purpose of data collection and processing, privacy preferences, and governance of personal data, including how to collect, process, share, archive, and delete data in accordance with the law. Thus, end-to-end encryption as a security rather than a privacy measure offers user anonymity but does not ensure user privacy in terms of data harvesting and sharing. It appears naïve to expect platforms to not harvest data that remains their central revenue source; yet for users, appeals to data security successfully obscure questions of data privacy which fundamentally compromise a (neo)liberal individual rights-bearing model of the user as citizen-consumer. Moreover, platforms need to revisit their own established orthodoxies regarding personal security by contending with the pragmatic, if not conceptual, hollowness of free speech in the age of misinformation.

Liberal Computing Culture and an Indian Public

While separating privacy from security is a question of legal and technical pragmatics on part of both users and tech companies, Indian regulations also provoke attention to how social media as spreadable media has layered itself over existing infrastructures of mass media politics, as observed by anthropologist Francis Cody. Longer genealogies of mass media and mediation assert the simultaneous need for the parochialization of an Indian public and the interrogation of a rational deliberative public sphere and free speech beyond South Asia to fundamentally challenge liberal mythologies of social media use.

Not only has liberalism had a limited hold on the Indian democratic imagination and elsewhere in the post-colonial world, but liberal theories of media and mediation are also inadequate to explain the consumption, circulation, and truth effects of social media across seemingly established liberal contexts. For instance, in 2017, a spate of mob violence and killings followed rumors about child abduction and organ harvesting, the first of several lynchings responding to WhatsApp misinformation. These incidents were rued as motivated by an Indian public’s simple-minded belief in the truth effects of networked rumor without noting its uncanny resonances with the incident now known as Pizzagate, in which rumors of Hilary Clinton sexually abusing children in satanic rituals in the basement of a pizza restaurant prompted an armed vigilante to open fire to save them.

Rosalind Morris has noted that rumor and mass media as its technological supplement allow crime to traverse the social field, not as universally legible meaningful action, but rather as “purely effective” violent force. What William Mazzarella calls the “open edge of mass publicity” is profoundly visible in the open circulation of public images. Social media forms trigger what Cody calls short-circuiting, as short-term events serve as smaller temporal loops that intersect with longer-term formations such as ethnic nationalism. As Cody emphasizes, the politics of social media-enabled assembly encourages “meta-publicity”: intensified public reflection on the ability of people who do not normally wield power to increasingly do so, outlining the emergence of a public coming to terms with deeper structural displacements, as well as the fragmented and inconsistent re-uptake of such reflection within nodes of dominant power. These are not Indian idiosyncrasies; rather they open up alternative ways of thinking about how the consumption, circulation, and truth effects of social media in the Global South reveal intimacies between misinformation, hate speech, and political violence. To do so, following Amrute and Murillo, we must situate Indian digital infrastructures ethnographically in terms of politics, epistemologies, and assumptions as well as open up material, immaterial, social, and political aspects of computing to alternative forms of life and future realities.


The author wishes to thank Aadya Behura for her research assistance.

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