January 18, 2021

The Law on Trial: Justice in the Age of Information

According to Marx’s theory of law, ideology makes the law and law is itself a representation of that ideology. The law reflects the time, the social structure, and the ideology in which it is legislated and brought into action. For example in India during the Ancient times homosexuality was not a crime which is quite evident from the ancient texts like the Kamasutra which dictates the ideal sexual lifestyle of the time has a complete chapter on homosexual erotic behaviour dedicated to it, while in the Medieval India homosexual acts had punishments as severe as death by stone pelting, and now it has been decriminalized. It is with consistency with this property of law that we can say that law and justice today are not free from the influence of modern technology and social media.

The rise of social media in the age of information has led to the development of a new type of vigilantes- internet vigilantes. They carry out their own investigations and judge the accused by their own, so essentially, they assume the roles of both the Police and the Court. This kind of activity undermines the rule of law and completely ignores the extremely important subject of jurisprudence. The method used by internet vigilantes to punish the accused is reminiscent of the Medieval methods of mob rule. Their raw information is mostly based on rumours that are circulated through the social media and hardly ever studied or verified before the actions against the accused are taken, so rumours can easily become the base on which the case is built in this ‘Kangaroo Court’ of internet vigilantes. It is a “trial by media” (Pipyrou 2018, 415) in which the judge, jury, and execution are the uninformed social media users and the judgements are carried out by the popular opinion. This form of vigilante justice is highly prone to miscalculations, these miscalculations can be as absurd as confusing a paediatrician with a paedophile and as huge as mistaking the identity of the perpetrator of Boston Marathon Bombing. The impact that it has on the reputation and the mind of the accused is immense.

Under the present regime in India, there have been several reports about lynching and cow vigilantism. These incidents were not based on a logical and rational belief, they were based on religious beliefs. This proves that the morals or rules that drive these vigilantes are not based on any kind of jurisprudence, instead, they are incredibly affected by the social norms and popular beliefs of the society. This poses a huge threat to the institution of law and jurisprudence whose role is to deliver order, justice and most importantly to protect. One might think that if it is the popular opinion that is making the decision it should not harm the public as much as it harms the accused individual, but that, unfortunately, is not always the case. In Uttar Pradesh for instance, there is a great fear of the consequences of engaging in cow slaughtering and the farmers who are always one of the victims of any injustice are suffering as their crops are regularly getting devastated by cattle who roam freely because the people are too afraid to do anything about them, fearing the cow vigilantes.

One may ask why is it that vigilante justice is on the rise or how do they get their information. The main reason for its rise is the system’s failure in delivering justice and that leads the people to look for alternative methods to receive justice. The social media provides an ideal platform for the people to take the law into their hands as it is loosely regulated, and the flow of information is infinite. The information is mainly in the visual form which makes the masses even more vulnerable to miscalculations, visuals have a deeper impact on the viewer’s mind and can be easily manipulated to induce the desired emotions. The new age media shows whatever they need, to manipulate the masses, but that misleads the people to believe that they are in a position to judge the accused because they think they know everything there is to know to be able to judge the case. This false realisation of their competency renders this trial incompetent ab initio. Messaging platforms like WhatsApp have paved the way for absurd rumours, most people share almost anything that they see without verifying it. This unverified and unregulated flow of information makes ‘vigilante justice’ a danger to the society.

Vigilante justice takes away the attention from the structural problem to the personality of the accused. Justice cannot be delivered if the accused is already determined to be an offender, an evil person, they can never be seen as victims (Kurian 2015, 26). Social media’s hashtag movement #MeToo is a tribunal in itself where the institution of law has no significance, the accused’s character is attacked while the crime is not the focus of the people’s attention, they deal with publicity and shame instead of trying to tackle the structural problem of the issue (Pipyrou 2018, 416). This is both medieval and modern at the same time, it makes the use of modern technology to gain publicity and uses the medieval technique of shaming the character of the accused to punish them. Nothing is hidden from the internet and these vigilantes have the power to access people’s private information. Not only the honour, but the privacy of the accused is also violated. This practice of publicly shaming people takes the form of ‘cyberbullying’. Cyberbullying is a criminal offence when committed by an adult, which may even lead to imprisonment. This renders the activities of these vigilantes illegal whether they are trying to help the victims or just doing it to harm the accused, they are not only acting outside the law, they are acting against. Consequently, these activities feed into an environment of Xenophobia.

The image of immigrants all around the world is a very negative one. Immigrants have always been viewed as strangers, who are a threat to the lifestyle and the civilization of the people on whose land they are all but aliens. The new age technology is not an exception to this Xenophobia, several pages on social media focus on monopolising this fear by posting about the illegal refugees and portraying them as pollutants in their “pure” society. The governments have started using modern technology to get rid of the ‘intruders’ with as much efficiency as possible. In India, for instance, there has been a controversy with the publication of the second draft of National Register of Citizens in which more than 4 million people were excluded in the North-Eastern state of Assam. The state made the people who have been living in India for decades with families and jobs stateless and without a home, all on the basis of a digitised interface of family trees and documents. These digitised systems are not error-free, they are subject to the human interface and the subjective bias in addition to the inherent flaws in the ‘legacy data’, the fate of the lives of millions should not be dependent on some data (“Numbing Numbers” 2018). Not only the government but also the public participates in this Xenophobia. In India, for example, on 5 March 2015 the people of Dimapur in thousands stormed the Dimapur Central Prison and lynched a man who was suspected of being a Bangladeshi immigrant and accused of rape, the person was later found to be Indian and had a Naga wife (Kurian 2015, 25).

The internet has given birth to new age media which surely has uncountable benefits, but its influence has so drastically changed the way justice is understood and delivered that the modern jurisprudence is not able to catch up to it. Several negative elements have a huge presence in the social media which has become the primary source of communication and information for its users. In this age, to rule over the people means to have control over the infinite data flowing through the internet. Hundreds of political media cells, communal elements, keyboard warriors, trolls etc., have completely ruined the credibility of the internet and social media. Another problem is the difficulty with enforcing the law in the cyber world, this renders the social media unmediated. The information is not reliable, and privacy is like a fantasy in new age media, nothing is hidden, and everything can be bought.

REFERENCES

1. Kurian, Anna. 2015. “Dimapur Lynching and the Impossibility of Remembering”. Economic & Political Weekly 51: 25-27.

2. Pipyrou, Stavroula. 2018. “#MeToo is little more than mob rule // vs // #MeToo is a legitimate form of social justice.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 8 (3): 415–419.

3. Jain, Mehal. 2018. “Breaking: Horrendous Acts of Mobocracy Can’t Be Allowed Become New Norm: SC Condemns Lynching Incidents, Issues Directions.” Live Law. 17 July. https://www.livelaw.in/breaking-horrendous-acts-of-mobocracy-cant-be-allowed-become-new-norm-sc-condemns-lynching-incidents-issues-directions/.

4. Anonymous. 2018. “Numbing Numbers”. The Hindu. 01 August. https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/numbing-numbers/article24566360.ece.

Author Details: Aniket Raj (O.P. Jindal Global University)

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