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Who is controlling the content we consume?

Learn more about how the digital world is evolving and how we can make sure this growth is equitable.

As of December 2021, India is home to approximately 646 million active internet users, placing it second only to China. This number is expected to grow and reach the 900 million mark by 2025. Within the span of a few years, this accelerated access to the internet has sparked a tremendous interest in social media platforms, giving rise to a new wave of emerging influencers from urban/peri-urban as well as rural areas in India. Short-form content platforms such as TikTok had gained a massive Indian audience, reaching approximately 167 million users prior to its ban by the Indian government in June 2020.

While Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat have witnessed substantial uptake in the urban/peri-urban, educated demographic, rural areas have shown a preference for TikTok-like platforms that are non text-based, yielding an enormous demographic of short-format content creators. This exposure to the internet and social media yielded populations, which had previously been rendered invisible in the mainstream imagination, a new medium of expression where they found avenues for creative expression, alternative pathways to financial freedom, and the ability to participate in social and civic discourse. It is observed today that young people are straddling many liminal states within communities. Their goals and aspirations are evolving with the current socio-political climate, but they may then get coerced into prescribed dominant behaviours, gendered expectations, and the need to fulfill established family roles that are socially and politically normative. It is important therefore that these varied thoughts, experiences and aspirations, which are the bedrock of a flourishing democracy prevail without fear of curtailment, especially curtailment in ways which are difficult to detect.

In light of the emergence of these voices and modern aspirations, a troubling phenomenon has become persistent: direct and indirect censorship. Any situation that showcases the authorities or influential figures in a poor light or goes against dominant structures and behaviours on social media, is either outright negated through the threat of legal action against the author and the hosting platform, or troll armies are deployed to ‘shadow ban’ the author’s account. Shadow banning is a form of invisible muzzling, where instead of direct action, users or individual pieces of content are blocked without letting the offending user know about it. This can take many forms, ranging from the denial of ‘blue ticks’ that place the authenticity of the account at risk, to flooding the social media post with pornographic comments so that it is automatically taken down by the platform. Perpetrators of shadow banning have been known to systematically identify and report posts that oppose the government’s stance on controversial issues. Combined with a recently amended Indian law (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) that mandates intermediaries to respond to a legal content takedown request within 24 hours, this has become a highly efficient system to restrain voices on the internet.

Though a systemic push to provide inexpensive mobile services has led to notable phone and internet penetration in rural India, rural digital growth significantly lags behind its urban counterpart. While poor connectivity and affordability issues persist, use of mobile and internet technology is limited also due to the absence of services catering to local language and context. The past couple of decades have seen a simultaneous increase in interventions at the grassroots level in the field of basic digital literacy. These programs however rarely include or prioritise topics such as access to knowledge, intellectual property rights, openness (including open data, free and open source software, open standards, open access, open educational resources, and open video), internet governance, telecommunication reform, digital privacy, and cyber-security. Interventions are focused on the functional aspects of digital literacy such as typing, receiving notifications/phone calls and navigating certain government and banking applications necessary for applying to social and livelihood schemes. While the pursuit is well-intentioned, it is important that these programs incorporate the principles of democratic inclusion and digital rights at the very outset, rather than attempting to add them in as an afterthought.

With about 350 million new users slated to become active on the internet in the next 5 years, it is crucial to attain widespread awareness of shadow banning amongst existing and new users. Equally important is the need to advance legislation that demands transparency from the government and social media intermediaries in relation to the content being censored. Through a focus on regional training programs for young adults, there needs to be increased awareness on cyber-rights and a stronger digital consciousness. This will allow people to safely raise their voices on social media and access mediums of recourse wherever such censorship is faced.

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