Yet another arrest, based on tweets, after last week’s imbroglio. This time, it involves a man from Puducherry who had allegedly tweeted that P Chidambaram’s son (Karti Chidambaram) had amassed more wealth than Robert Vadra.

Yes, I know precisely what is going on in your mind.

Haven’t we seen such tweets all over Twitter, for ages? Just replace Karti Chidambaram and Robert Vadra with few other names and you have tons of tweets to refer to. So, you may be wondering – what kind of country are we living in where such tweets warrant an arrest?

The Times of India article on this story says that Ravi (the guy who was arrested) was ‘booked under Section 66 (1) (hacking with computer system) of the Information Technology Act. The section can be used against a person who, with the intent to causing wrongful loss or damage to the public or any person, destroys or deletes or alters any information residing in a computer resource or diminishes its value or utility or affects it injuriously by any means.’

That is bizarre! What is not bizarre, however, is the action itself (if you remove it from the legal nuances of the section under which the action was invoked).

I have used this example so many times, but let me use it again, for explaining the point.

2012: Ravi arrested for saying X has amassed more wealth than Y, on Twitter.

1990: Ravi spoke in a public gathering here in Puducherry and alleged that X has amassed more wealth than Y.

If, for instance, Ravi had spoken to a select group of friends, at his house, and shared the same allegation against X, comparing him with Y, the issue is very different. Incidentally, politicians get away with a lot of such things in this country!

It is not called social ‘media’ for no reason. It is ‘media’ and media gives you reach. The earlier media vehicles available to the common man were limited by the amount of money one can spend and/or connections.

If you had money, you created your media – called for a meeting/gathering in a public place… or printed posters to be plastered all over the city (a very common ‘media’ used in Tamil Nadu, incidentally, even today). Or, if you had connections and the skills of articulation, you could use it with mainstream media and get yourself published with your opinion.

But, here’s the deal – these media were available with a chosen few. The power to amplify a point of view was limited to a few. And if someone abused that power, defamation suits were filed by the aggrieved parties and it was the onus of (a) the aggrieved party to prove the extent and nature of defamation (b) the perpetrator to prove that what he/she did was well within his/her right, invoking either further proof of the opinion or something like satire.

Now, with social media, the power to amplify an opinion is in the hands of every person with an internet connection. There is no doubt that the spread of amplification differs massively from person to person, but imagine it like this, in the 90s scenario – if you didn’t have the power to print 100,000 lakh posters to spread your view, you printed one poster from your deskjet printer, in your home and put it outside your house. And it stays forever and is available on demand for anyone, for perpetuity. That one poster outside your house is the equivalent of a tweet, even if you can’t dig into Twitter’s archives after a week or so. But it could have been passed on and cross-referenced in so many other places that there’s technically no death to a tweet.

There are digital equivalents to every offline act. Here are a few examples.

Your daughter is stalked at the bus stop every day? Online, someone could be responding with inane and abusive stuff to everything she posts in a particular message board/forum. Same thing!

She’s being followed all across her route to the college? Online, every tweet of her could get a response from one or more cronies of perpetrators. Even if she blocks them, they could get more friends to tweet back to her or add her name in a hashtag and spread the word around so that it also reaches her. Same thing!

You could well claim – can’t she completely ignore all these people online, unlike offline where physical proximity makes things dangerous. Fair question, but please do consider the psychological impact in place of physical danger, of seeing anti-you statements and abuses everywhere you go online for fun and some social chatter. Just because there is no physical danger or presence, it doesn’t mean it is safe and above board – stalking is more a mental and psychological threat, than physical.

You could also argue – why can’t she stay away from Twitter and these forums where she’s being cyber-stalked? That is like asking her not to go to college or take a different route to college. Why should she sacrifice her personal freedom for fear of some nutjobs stalking her? Same reasoning applies online.

With everything having an online equivalent, the fact about amplification of personal opinions does too. If you are sharing something online, you ARE responsible for what you say. The only reason why you don’t get into trouble because of what you say (if you say something silly that impacts another person), is because (a) the other person is not aware of it (yet) or (b) the other person does not know what to do with you, besides ignoring you and what was said.

In the 1990 example above, what was said, (in the limited media scenario) was usually against someone already famous/popular. And such people have enough awareness (usually) and power to take someone to task when they says something against them that is factually/legally incorrect or speculative.

There is a reason why you see the word ‘allegedly’ when media reports crimes – it is not proven yet and till then, the person is merely alleged to have done something. Alleged by the aggrieved party, that is. The story may well make your blood boil, depending on which side you are and you may have made up your mind already about the crime, but you are NOT the law. You are free to share your opinion with people close to you. But if these people close to you reside on Twitter and you share it with them on Twitter, please remember that Twitter is not your living room. It is your living room without a roof or walls and resides in the middle of the road. Now, would you say the same thing?

I’m not portraying a gloomy picture – all I am saying is that there is a responsibility tag to everything you say and who/how you share it. Just because you sit in your underwear, in your room, while uttering something online, you can’t imagine that you are not responsible. The amount of trouble you can get into for saying something against someone online is perhaps dependent on 3 factors,

  1. the amount of spread your word has; the more it spreads, the more people come to know about it and believe it to be true
  2. the amount of annoyance it causes to someone; this is applicable specifically when it is personal and less to do with broader opinions (that political party is corrupt vs. that guy, X, is corrupt – the former is a broad opinion and could be true at a systemic level, but the latter is pointed and may be contested as character assassination).
  3. the amount of patience and intent the aggrieved party has, to pursue a legal case against you

What we are seeing now, in Chinmayi’s case and also Karthi’s case is accentuated awareness of the 3rd point above. I believe we have crossed the first 2 points in all these years and it is time for both the patience and intent to be tested.

Of course, in each case, there may be a million people saying the same thing (or abusing) against a person, but it is up to the aggrieved party to pick and choose who they want to pursue a case against because it is indicative of their annoyance. It is not anyway feasible to sue a million people. Remember the old kids puzzle – 10 birds were sitting on a tree branch. A hunter shot one of them… how many birds are left in the branch? Same answer (if you got it right!) applies here.

This is not to say that there is no recourse for negative opinions online. There is satire, for one, and if you can prove it from your past utterances online, you would seem safe. Then there is articulation – how you say things matters as much as what you say (I disagree with your point of view because… vs. what you say is nonsense and I’d love to kill you/rape you for that).

Note: I’m not a lawyer and I have no idea of how the law views what I have referred to above. Please feel free to add legal nuances that can either back or counter what I have noted above… and let me learn, in the process.