Social Media: The Dark, Dangerous Side


For some time now there is a major face-off going on between Big Tech, which includes social media platforms like Facebook, Google, Twitter, Instagram, etc., and governments in several countries which are considered the prime examples of functioning democracies: UK, France, Germany, USA. Their leaders have expressed the need for more rigorous regulation of these platforms which have become so big and are wielding so much of power that they are behaving like supranational states – as there are no boundaries in digital space. As such their mode of functioning and their ‘rules’ can go counter and even clash with the local laws of a country.

Here also ICTA has circulated a consultation document about amendments it was planning to bring to the act, and people have given their perspectives. It is going to be a delicate balancing task meet the principle of freedom of expression and judicious regulation so as to prevent it from being used to excess, to cause harm to individuals or disturbance of social peace, or again, endangering the country’s security.

One of the major problems of social media is that fake news and lies, like gossip, spread faster than truth. And gullible people are apt to be taken in and put themselves at risk, risk that can be so high that it can lead to exploitation of the person or even death.

There are numerous examples of such kinds of social ills that have been exposed in several countries. Thus paedophilia rings have been uncovered, often too late because so much of damage has been done already. Similarly with pornography networks wherein women are lured by promises of work and land up being trafficked as prostitutes, unable to get out and return to their countries. At one stage this was rampant in the UK, with women from the poorer eastern European countries falling into the trap.

The current case of the alleged psychopathic ‘serial killer’ is a poignant example of the dark, dangerous side of social media that many do not seem to be aware of. In fact, there are so many cases that have been reported both locally and outside of susceptible people, especially women in vulnerable situations, being taken in by the false promises being made, using false identities and changed names. Unsuspectingly, they believe that the names being used and the promises being made – of marriage, or travel outside/settling abroad – are genuine, and it is too late by the time they realise and then can’t escape because of blackmail, well-known being photos of the victims in compromising postures being surreptitiously taken and made to go viral on social media. In extreme cases, these lead to suicide, or to the killing of these subjects.

Clearly, no amount of regulation can prevent any defaulter from creating a false identity or making spurious claims on Facebook, which is the oldest and most popular social platform. And practically all the cases of exploitation that have been uncovered locally relate to messages traded on Facebook. Given the quasi-inability of official regulation in these personal matters, the clear lesson is that the responsibility of protecting oneself lies squarely on the shoulders of the individual. From the incidents that we have been seeing, it would appear that many people, especially those in difficulty, are not aware of the dangers that await them on Facebook. It is therefore up to parents and family, NGOs and civil society organizations to take the lead in creating the necessary awareness among people.

On the other hand, that does not preclude the State itself launching a campaign to supplement the efforts of non-State actors in this project. There is a very valid reason for the State to be involved: in the protection of the citizens of the country, fundamentally, and eventually, when a crime is committed, it is the State’s human and logistical resources that are mobilized to investigate and try to solve the crime, resources which could otherwise be put in service elsewhere.

The lockdown may have been a factor in triggering or accelerating this phenomenon, as people with time on their hands and facing boredom may have been tempted to take a chance at an easy form of escape that then turns out to be deadly. All told, therefore, everyone must be extremely careful in using Facebook, whether it is posting material especially personal details, or responding to posts. They must check, check, check before they take any step forward if they do not want to end up cheated or dead.

* Published in print edition on 1 June 2021

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