They may speak the language of urban millennials, but a set of Facebook pages are raising questions about whether they are spreading hate and discrimination under the guise of humour.
New Delhi: In September 2017, Deeksha Sharma, a reporter with The Quint, did a Facebook Live video about the sexist lyrics of the viral ‘Aunty ki Ghanti’ song by rapper Omprakash Mishra. Sharma criticised the events being organised in different parts of the country to chant the song’s lyrics.
Minutes after the Facebook Live ended, abuse started trickling in, and Mishra told followers to report the media organisation. It also resulted in the creation of a page called Squint Neon on Facebook — a parody of Quint Neon, the media website’s trending news and viral videos section.
The Quint finally lodged a police complaint, and Facebook helped block most of the abuse. However, the doxxing was already done by then and Sharma’s personal details had been accessed, forcing her to take down her Facebook account.
Fun, the ‘Right’ way?
Squint Neon and similar pages speak the language of urban millennials, but their content also raises questions about whether they are spreading hate and discrimination under the guise of humour.
Squint Neon is perhaps the biggest of the new-age Right-wing parody pages in India. It has been taken down multiple times on Facebook, but returned with different names like Squint Neon Renaissance, Squint Neon 2.0 and Humans of Squint Neon. The original version had over 21,000 followers on Facebook, and over 6,000 on Twitter.
Others like TheFire.in, TheLiar.in (both parodies of news website TheWire.in), Hindutva Memes for Nationalist Teens, Reserved Memes for Dalit Teens, and Comrades of India publish similar content. However, barring Comrades of India, their followings are comparatively lower, ranging from 1,000 to 5,000.
Though the pages do not claim to be against any social group, Reserved Memes for Dalit Teens describes itself on Facebook as: “Untouchables, emptying your bank accounts and occupying your seats since 1954”.
Best Indian Memes for Creamy Teens is another page which has been reported for casteist content in the past over similar content, including a photo of Dr B.R. Ambedkar with the caption: “First I f**k the nation, then I give dalits reservation (sic).”
Last July, a Delhi High Court verdict asserted that social media slurs and comments targeting the community were liable under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act.
Another Facebook page which is in the dock for spreading hatred is Comrades of India. The page has over 12,000 followers, and was created in July 2017. The page, which claims it is a parody, publishes posts that satirise popular Left-wing student leaders. It also mocked the 2017 killing of Karnataka journalist-activist Gauri Lankesh.
‘None of the content is offensive’
Attempts to get in touch with administrators of most pages were not successful.
Squint Neon and Hindutva Memes for Nationalist Teens sent similar responses — the former told us to get in touch with “free speech warrior Gul Mohar Kaur”, while the latter said we should contact “Leftist warrior Umor Kholid”. Squint Neon also took a screenshot of the request for an interview, and uploaded it on Facebook and Twitter.
The only administrator to respond seriously to ThePrint’s queries was from Comrades of India.
“I wanted to see initially if people actually mistook me for another genuine Left page, and they did. I stopped masquerading as a ‘real’ page and clearly wrote it’s a parody after I got a bunch of reports (reported a bunch of times, sic),” the administrator told ThePrint on Facebook chat.
Unlike many famous Right-wing accounts on Twitter and Facebook, these millennial-styled Right-wing parody pages are rarely explicitly abusive or overtly inciting violence. The pages usually publish memes and images that they claim are humorous and done as satire. Their critics, however, point out that they propagate discrimination, casteism and sexism under this garb of “edgy” parody.
But why do such pages target only certain social groups — often women, Muslims and Dalits?
“Feminists today are worthless trash. While we had great feminists like Phule and Maharishi Dayanand who fought for equality, the modern day whales fight for special privileges,” the Comrades of India administrator wrote.
The administrator also denied that the content on these pages was “offensive”.
“I would pity and feel disgust for any person who asserts Dalit pride, just as I would feel the same for any blacks who would assert ‘n****r pride’ in the West. I want them to leave the word used to insult them behind, and instead aim to become Brahmins etc by their work,” the administrator said.
While some meme pages have been able to monetise their content, the administrator of parody page Unofficial: Susu Swamy said the controversial Right-wing pages may also have a revenue model. “Once they get more than two to five lakh followers, they are approached by Right-wing websites like Postcard News and others. These people pay them money to post their articles,” this administrator said on the condition of anonymity. “Some even buy such pages and start posting their content. Any youngster can do it, especially from small towns.”
The other side
Anti-Right wing pages, meanwhile, have stepped their meme game in response to their counterparts’ offensive.
The most prominent example of a page taking on the Right using its own version of satire is Humans of Hindutva (HoH). The page has taken itself down multiple times, after reportedly facing death threats and threats to reveal the page-owner’s identity. The page’s administrator wrote an open letter back in October explaining the page’s intent. “My posts only mimic the views held by actual nationalists and exaggerate their actual statements. While I can’t expect Facebook’s algorithm to get this, I can only hope that someone working at Facebook reads this and understands my true intentions,” wrote the admin.
HoH’s posts often use a template of sarcasm. For example, it uploaded a parody of popular Netflix show ‘Stranger Things’, by sharing an image of Amit Shah and his son Jay Shah with the words ‘Stranger Things’ superimposed, when a controversial report about Jay Shah’s business was published.
On another occasion, it used a stock photograph of an empty orange room, with the caption: “Rare photograph that shows all RSS freedom fighters in one place.”
There are several other meme pages that target Prime Minister Narendra Modi, his followers, and the news media that praises him — Fakendra Modi, Feku Express, StarBhakts, Unofficial: Subramanian Swamy and Unofficial Dr. Arnab Gowswamy are some examples.
The visible difference between Right-wing millennial meme pages versus the anti-Right wing is of the factual content quality. While the Right-leaning pages are mainly memes filled with opinions that are not backed by facts, the memes posted by the counterparts are mostly fact-checks of the government or of news stories, or satirical posts based on facts, with related cartoons and data.
Other pages such as Mad Mughal Memes, which has 231,000 likes, uses the Mughal Empire as a trope, occasionally delving into fact-checking of politicians’ statements on Mughal and Muslim rulers.
The very claim of being a ‘parody’ page also makes offensive content on such pages difficult to report, says Paul Anthony George, a Mumbai-based independent researcher.
“Internet memes and anything that can be remotely called ‘parody’ falls within the ambit of free speech, as long as there is an audience at the other end, showering the content with likes,” says George.
Gautam Bhatia, lawyer and author of the book Offend, Shock or Disturb: Free Speech Under the Indian Constitution, said the law is presently too “blunt” an instrument to deal with such pages.
“Hate speech law is premised on the idea that certain kinds of speech leads to certain kinds of results, but there must be a degree of proximity between the speech and result. Language gives you enough space to say things so that the state/prosecution can never prove that that degree of proximity actually exists,” said Bhatia.
For its part, Facebook says it already has a strict policy against hate speech.
“We’re opposed to hate speech, and don’t allow it on our platform,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement. “Our approach to enforcing our hate speech policy has evolved over time and continues to change as we learn from our community, from experts in the field, and as technology provides us new tools to operate more quickly, more accurately and precisely at scale.”
Dr Padmini Ray Murray, who heads the digital humanities programme at Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology, Bengaluru, said policing such pages will remain a challenge. “Who legislates these pages?” she asked.