Originally Published 2020-08-01 10:40:54 Published on Aug 01, 2020
From Fears to Conviction: Why Internet Shutdowns Don’t Work

The radicalisation of vulnerable youth through online content has been a major threat for Indian law enforcement in recent years. The fear of social media platforms being an incubator of misinformation and extremist rhetoric has compelled the dispensation to advocate blanket internet shutdowns. Such measures have been rationalised as being an effective counterterrorism tool that aids in curbing disinformation and upholding national security. India has been responsible for 67% of the world’s documented shutdowns and has been a leading advocate of this measure to combat extremism. However, analysing the implications of such shutdowns on achieving the purported aims has revealed the ineffectiveness of these measures in fulfilling what advocates promised. Nonetheless, the threat of online radicalisation is real and has transnational implications. Thus, examining the reasons underpinning the failure of internet shutdowns in quelling the militancy in Kashmir may help inform lessons for other demographics who are confronted with the threat of online radicalisation and have shown a hesitation to adopt such blanket measures.

Gap between expectation and reality: Ineffectiveness of internet shutdowns

Internet shutdowns have been construed as a crucial pre-emptive measure to ensure stability and peace in the region while also helping governments resist the negative spillover effects of social media inspired extremist violence. However, such blanket internet shutdowns fail to acknowledge the power of word of mouth and the ability of people eager to mobilise and express dissent to use VPN servers or peer-to peer chat services relying on Bluetooth connectivity to circumvent these shutdowns. In this information age, extremists intended to spread hate can also access VPNs and circumvent these bans, indicating that law enforcement needs to understand the critical difference between moderating and blocking content, with the former often being more effective than the latter.

Interestingly, as counterintuitive as it may seem, research has also indicated that internet shutdowns and the obstacles they pose to strategic communication has made collective action in India more reliant on violent rather than non-violent tactics that are less dependent on group coordination. This may explain the persistence of terrorist attacks in the Valley despite the prevalence of internet bans. The killing of a truck driver in Anantnag in October 2019 was the fourth attack in the of two weeks all whilst the Valley grappled with the interent shutdown. Even law-enforcement officers seem convinced that the long-drawn internet ban will not curb the cross-border militant threat confronting India. Thus, strategic communication between extremists and a fulfilment of their violent ends seems to withstand such shutdowns and compel them to seek alternate avenues of communication.

Additionally, if quelling extremism is the goal, these measures fail to acknowledge the “moral hazard” triggered by such shutdowns. Moral hazards allude to cases wherein the reaction to a policy intervention contradicts what is expected and by extension, exacerbates rather than mitigates the problem it seeks to solve. The case of internet shutdowns is an illustration of this pattern as the economic and political disruptions caused by shutdowns and the cost- both social and economic- incurred by the government may give terrorists a welcome incentive to carry out such attacks. The debilitating economic effects of shutdowns owing to an increased dependence on a digital economy is evident in the India case with data suggesting a loss in excess of 1.3 billion dollars just in 2019. Thus, the cognisance of how such shutdowns further fault lines and cause chaos in the region they are imposed may in turn motivate rather than discourage extremist threats.

The advocacy for internet shutdowns seems to be underscored by a short-term risk assessment approach. Removing avenues for communication with the hope that it mitigates the immediate extremist threat may seem valid but fails to account for the long-term impact of such measures. Those working towards countering violent extremism- a “soft” and non-coercive approach at tackling extremism have indicated the importance of the internet in aiding their efforts by providing an avenue for disseminating counter-narratives. The scope for CVE actors to use the Internet to challenge and reinforce social norms that reject extremist views is gaining widespread consensus. The United Kingdom’s Home Office contracting Breakthrough media to produce online content that counters Jihadist narratives as part of their CVE agenda is reflective of the growing acknowledgement of the strategic relevance of the Internet as a means to fulfill CVE objectives. Extremism is a deep-rooted phenomenon with psycho-social facets and counternarratives aid in addressing those core biases that inform extremist rhetoric. Relentless internet bans as imposed in Kashmir pose obstacles to online CVE efforts and make the long-term fight against extremism more arduous.

Skepticism regarding the efficacy of internet shutdowns has not dampened India’s advocacy for such measures. Instead, its popularity has been attributed to the ease of enforcing shutdowns in comparison to other alternatives of curbing disinformation. Most shutdowns in India are enforced through a legal provision that allows state officials to direct telecom services providers to shut services based on “their opinion” with some officials openly admitting to the attractiveness of using shutdowns as it is a less cumbersome procedure to implement. This in conjunction with reduced state capacity to understand and counter cyber threats creates a conducive climate to advocate blanket shutdowns. A dire need to enhance technical skills to undertake effective collaborative policing on the Internet is imperative as this may instill confidence in law enforcement to find the perpetrator in question rather than shutting down the medium that facilitated him or her to spark unrest.

Strategies like the throttling of certain internet platforms that makes the government’s culpability more conspicuous have been used by countries like Jordan to mitigate the risks blanket shutdowns, pose in exacerbating extremist threats. Other alternatives to internet shutdowns have also emphasised the importance of a consequentialist approach rather than the pre-emptive nature of blanket shutdowns. Enhanced capacity building that allows governments to identify miscreants can be complemented with a policy that attaches strict negative consequences to those misusing the online space. Such an approach can help discourage behaviours through negative reinforcement while also preventing the public at large to fall victim to the collateral damage argument that considers collective sacrifice as being justified for upholding the larger purpose of national security.

Lessons learned from the Indian experience

The unknown ways in which the rapidly evolving online eco-system may empower extremists is a real fear that may have driven the arbitrary advocacy of blanket shutdowns. Such shutdowns may have delayed the expression or nature of hateful dissent but have not thwarted it. The lesson from the Indian experience seems to be a need for enhanced technical and cognitive capacity that helps identify the sources spreading and harbouring extremist views rather than blocking the Internet as a whole. As iterated earlier, blanket shutdowns deepen feelings of discontentment and strengthen the biases of perceived injustice underpinning extremist rhetoric, an outcome which contradicts the purported use of this policy measure.

This commentary originally appeared in Global Network on Extremism & Technology.

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Prithvi Iyer

Prithvi Iyer

Prithvi Iyer was a Research Assistant at Observer Research Foundation Mumbai. His research interests include understanding the mental health implications of political conflict the role ...

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