August 5th, 2019 is a day few Indians will forget; social media sites buzzed for days to follow. The ruling political power of India, the Bharatiya Janata Party, announced that Article 370 — a constitutional provision that grants the Jammu and Kashmir regions “special status” — would be revoked. Locked between Indian and Pakistani administration, the Muslim-majority state uses its “special status” to receive benefits in property rights and protection from Hindu nationalist immigration. However, this status also brings limitations in women’s rights and the safety of its residents. A grave departure for human rights occurred after this event, as all communication from Kashmir was blacked out, leaving the local residents shouting into the void with no way to reach their fellow countrymen. As I scrolled through hundreds of #RedWithKashmir posts and stories on different social networking sites, I grew increasingly worried about the biased information about this move on the internet. Concerningly, a large number of fights broke out behind glowing screens during the week that followed.
Social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook began with teenagers sharing filtered pictures of food, travel and themselves. Now, these sites are transforming into a venting space for these same teenagers’ growing frustrations as their social and political views take shape. Troublingly, these sites have also become a medium for spreading misinformation and biased news by parties with malicious intentions. An example of this spread of misinformation are the strikingly similar #BlueWithSudan posts that went viral after the crisis. Con artists promised unsuspecting social media users that they would send aid to Sudan in return for reposts and likes. Thousands fell for these scams as they tried to help fix a crisis they probably did not know enough about.
Political and social conversations have changed from mutual respect and understanding to anger and confusion hidden behind screens. While the notion that the youth of today do not accept the actions of their leaders without critical thought is uplifting, the anonymity that comes with bias and hate is dampening. Phrases like “don’t @ me” that are often used after making hurtful or offensive statements towards a particular group reveal disinterest in hearing the next person’s point of view. Users wash their hands of the consequences and responsibility for their words. The false veil of safety that comes with closing doors to different perspectives has become the brand of our generation, and the internet has become a space for individuals to speak, but not be heard.
To gain a deeper perspective on this issue, I asked mutual Instagram followers to message me about how they felt about Article 370, a current hot topic for debate back home in India, over my summer break. The responses were staggering. Varied views and opinions came pouring in from different corners of the world, filled with forceful words like “be cognizant” and “read the constitution.” Despite their initial hostility due to the tension surrounding the conflict, after I thanked the users for their opinions, their tones would often change to respect and openness. One user’s initial response to my call for opinions on Article 370 was assertive to the point of being authoritative. She bombarded me with forceful language and multiple messages about the issue and (in a “don’t @ me” fashion) chose not to respond when presented with a view that did not match hers. “You’re not looking at this one-dimensionally,” she relented, once she realized my tone was drastically different than hers. Given some time and consideration, her tone softened further. “Thank you for listening!” she logged off. All it took was some thoughtfulness and civility to transform the conversation.
Ultimately, it was heartening to see followers message me about their views on Article 370. These messages are a spark of hope that our generation does understand that there are ways to make your voice heard through legitimate means, and even if it took an “I hear you” or “I respect your opinion” from me to make the tone of conversation respectful, it was always reciprocated. Social media can be a useful place to voice political opinions and generate informal dialogue, but it is imperative we recognize rules and etiquette that come with discussing sensitive issues so that the conversation is productive, not hateful.
Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them.
A version of this article appeared in the Sunday, Aug. 25, 2019 Welcome Week special issue print edition. Email Diya Jain at [email protected]