The Indian response to @shamiwitness and the abuse of social media

Published in Jerusalem Post, December 15, 2014 by Dr Andre Oboler.

There is a buzz here in India at the news that an Indian man, Mehdi Masroor Biswas, was arrested in the early hours of Saturday morning for operating the popular pro-ISIS Twitter account @shamiwitness. The account shared links to beheading videos and interviewed foreign fighters before they left to join ISIS and after they arrived. Indian authorities found Biswas after tracing a call made to him by BBC reporters in London.
Despite admitting to operating he account, Biswas claims “I haven’t waged war against anybody. I just said stuff, people followed me, then I followed them back and then we talked”. His Twitter account was followed by over 17,000 people. While there is no evidence of Biswas directly participating in terrorist recruitment, he was clearly a key node in the promotion of pro-terrorist propaganda.
Despite his value to ISIS, particularly in spreading propaganda into the UK and Europe, Biswas denies being part of ISIS, saying that because his parents rely on him for financial support he could not afford to go and join ISIS. Indian police have confirmed that he has never left India and that his activities are confined to the online world.
Mehdi has been charged under Section 125 of the Indian Penal Code, a provision originally targeted against those waging war against countries allied to or at peace with the British Empire. Since the 1950’s the provision has prohibited the waging of war, attempted waging of war, or abetting the waging of war with any “any Asiatic power in alliance or at peace with the Government of India”. Biswas’s role in spreading propaganda for ISIS via Twitter is very clearly a modern form of support for the waging of war.
The day Mehdi was arrested I arrived in India to address INDICON 2014, a major annual conference for Engineers in India, run by the IEEE, the world’s largest professional engineering body. I spoke to the gathered delegate about the need for better tools to address threats in social media, from cyber-bullying and racism through to terrorism. I presented to the Indian audience a new tool from my organization, the Online Hate Prevention Institute, which was launched in Sydney last week by the Hon Paul Fletcher MP. The tool “fight against hate” will help the public report harmful online content so authorities, human rights organizations, academic researchers, and other key stakeholders are able to focus their efforts.
In the last six months, something has changed. There was wide spread agreement from the distinguished audience at INDICON that greater safety is needed online, including better regulation of social media. The engineers make the call for a greater focus on law reform to address the lag between innovation and protections for the public. There was also an acknowledgement that there are problems online which engineers and IT professionals need to invest in tackling.
The next day I addressed the IEEE’s All India Computer Society Student Congress. The best, brightest and most engaged IT students from right around India. The students were all too familiar with the dangers that lurk online. They were also aware of the challenges, including the need to strike a balance between measures that prevent harm, and protecting freedom of expression. The student recognized their power as software developers in the modern world, the responsibility they face in helping to create our shared future.
Mehdi Masroor Biswas, himself an engineering graduate, serves as an example of technology being abused to harm people. The students I spoke to in India provide an alternative, brighter, view of the future. In this future those with the power derived from technical knowhow are adopting an ethical stance to ensure technology is advance not for its own sake, but for the benefit of humanity.Dr Andre Oboler is CEO of Australia’s Online Hate Prevention Institute and currently in India as a Distinguished Visitor