I wrote in February about India’s crackdown on religiously offensive speech on the internet. In response to lawsuits in Indian courts, Facebook and Google have removed images that allegedly cause offense to Hindus, Muslims, and other religious communities. In The Atlantic this week, Max Fisher writes that the censorship issue is again getting attention, with the US State Department calling on India to respect the “full freedom of the internet.” Fisher wonders, though, whether India doesn’t have reason to clamp down. A long-standing dispute between Hindus and Muslims in Assam has recently reignited, fueled by rumors on the internet that each side was planning to massacre the other. Eighty people have already been killed, and 300,000 displaced. Religious hate speech on the internet hasn’t caused this crisis, of course, but it has contributed to it. What is the Indian government to do? Fisher writes:
Walter Russel Mead, writing on the ongoing crisis, called India’s long-running communal tensions “the powder keg in the basement.” With the already-dangerous risk of ethnic combustion heightened by a population with easy access to rumors and an apparent predisposition to believing them, maybe that powder keg justifies Indian censorship. Or maybe it doesn’t; free speech is its own public good and public right, and, in any case, censoring discussion of such sensitive national issues could make it more difficult for India to actually confront them. This is just one of the many difficult questions that Indian leaders will grapple with as hundreds of thousands of their citizens flee their homes, chased out by “a swirl of unfounded rumors.” I don’t envy them.