Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s recent comment on BJP leader Kapil Mishra’s controversial speech—though he didn’t name Mishra—what should be removed from the social media platform underscores the threat posed to freedom of expression on the internet. The implicit assumption—that Zuckerberg or somebody else—could be the arbiter of truth and decency is as preposterous as it is haughty.
“And there have been cases in India, for example, where someone said, ‘Hey, if the police don’t take care of this, our supporters will get in there and clear the streets’,” Zuckerberg recently said during a video interaction with his employees. “That is kind of encouraging supporters to go do that in a more direct way, and we took that down. So we have a precedent for that.”
Whether or not Misra incited people to violence in Delhi this year is beside the point in this case; if he is involved in any way, law enforcement agencies can charge him with difference offences. If they fail to do their job, any lawyer can move the court to take cognizance of Mishra’s wrongdoing. Senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader Subramanian Swamy is not even a lawyer and yet he has sent people behind bars in corruption cases.
What is pertinent here is Zuckerberg’s, or anybody else’s, capability to determine whether some statement made by somebody triggers violence. Checking riots and penalizing rioters is the job of police, not of social media tycoons.
Besides, there is a difference between making reprehensible remarks and inciting people to indulge in violence. John Stuart Mill, one of the greatest champions of individual liberty, wrote that “opinions lose their immunity, when the circumstances in which they are expressed are such as to constitute their expression a positive instigation to some mischievous act. An opinion that corn-dealers are starvers of the poor, or that private property is robbery, ought to be unmolested when simply circulated through the press, but may justly incur punishment when delivered orally to an excited mob assembled before the house of a corn-dealer, or when handed about among the same mob in the form of a placard. Acts, of whatever kind, which, without justifiable cause, do harm to others, may be, and in the more important cases absolutely require to be, controlled by the unfavorable sentiments, and, when needful, by the active interference of mankind. The liberty of the individual must be thus far limited; he must not make himself a nuisance to other people” (On Liberty, 1859).
This shows that Mill would not accept any curbs on the freedom of speech except in rare circumstances—to “an excited mob” against corn-dealers “before the house of a corn-dealer”; that is, when the harm to life, limb, and property of the targeted person is imminent. But then, in such situations, haranguing an angry mob is incitement to violence rather than an expression of opinion, and there is nothing improper in penalizing incitement to violence.
At any rate, such punishment would be against felonious intent and action rather than freedom of expression. When a mafia don orders his henchmen to eliminate a rival, he is not exercising his right to freedom of expression but triggering a crime. There is a difference between freedom of expression and incitement of crime.
Circumstances also matter. A socialist is not only entitled to his view that private property is theft but also free to express it. Doing that in the agreeable environs of Delhi’s India International Centre is okay. He, however, crosses the line when he convinces, coaxes, or instigates his followers to such an extent that they immediately carry out violent activities against propertied persons or property.
As mentioned earlier, the people competent to find out the incitement potential in a speech are cops, lawyers, and judges. Zuckerberg should let them do this job. Frankly, he has no locus standi on the matter of Delhi riots..