Cyber warriors of the AIADMK are scouring the web in search of those spreading ‘rumours’ on Jayalalithaa.

How AIADMKs IT Wing is cracking down on rumours But is it fair to arrest citizens
news Politics Tuesday, October 18, 2016 - 17:37

All through her several regimes Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa has attained notoriety for filing defamation cases against media and the opposition. But even as the CM remains confined to a room in the Critical Care Unit of the Apollo Hospital in Chennai, a team of warriors in the corridors of social media are keeping the fort safe for her.

The cyber warriors of the AIADMK are scouring the web continuously, in search of message spreading ‘rumours’ on Jayalalithaa’s health.

The 8-member IT wing of the AIADMK works out of the party’s main office at Chennai’s Avvai Shanmugam Salai. The young team controls 700 members spread across various districts in the state, all of them usually below 35 years of age. These people are the eyes and ears of the AIADMK on the internet, and have been tracking down people posting messages speculating on Amma’s health obsessively. This team then files a complaint with the police.

So far, at least 7 people have been arrested and more than 50 cases have been filed against people for spreading messages that can allegedly create panic amongst the public. Most of the arrested were either accused of spreading rumours or mocking the CM.

Most of the cases have been filed under IPC section 153 (wantonly giving provocation with intent to cause riot) or IPC section 505 (1) that deals with “whoever makes, publishes or circulates any statements, rumour or reports” and 505 (1) (b) that is “intent to cause or which is likely to cause, fear or alarm to the public”.

Lawyers, especially those who are not aligned with the present dispensation, are livid that these laws are being used. “It is very unfair to book and arrest people under these sections,” says A Saravanan, advocate and spokesperson of the DMK, “The operative part in these laws is the intention to cause violence. That was not the intention here, the reason these rumours emerge is there is very little official information about Jayalalithaa. She is a big leader so people will be worried,” he says. He however adds that some of the rumours are in bad taste.

The AIADMK IT wing secretary, an IIM (Ahmedabad) alumnus, G Ramachandran defends his team’s action. “These messages about Amma are put out by people with a cause to create panic and unrest. We are not targeting anyone in particular. We don’t check which party they belong to. If the message is intended to cause panic, we file complaints,” says Ramachandran.

Ramachandran’s defense that the IT wing is not targeting anyone in particular is in retaliation to a statement by DMK leader MK Stalin, that DMK party cadres were being targeted.

How can the AIADMK clamp down on freedom of expression? “This isn’t about clamping down on freedom of expression, but about law and order. And the police department follows due diligence and decides whether they need to act on a complaint,” he says.

Another member of the IT wing working in a district outside Chennai said that members across districts were constantly monitoring YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and even WhatsApp, day and night. “So if a member in a particular district noticed a message that says Amma is no more or something vicious, they inform the state team. The state team then gives clearance and a complaint is filed,” he said.

The team also sends messages warning people that a tweet or post has been taken note of and if repeated, a police complaint would be filed. “We have got more than 30 apology letters from people we have warned on Twitter, Facebook etc. Look at the trajectory of rumours, it has decreased a lot over the last week. People with vested interests were spreading them and once they realized we will take action, they have become quiet,” the IT wing member said.

The arrest of two bank employees in Coimbatore who were having a private conversation on Jayalalithaa’s health has drawn much flak. The Hindu wrote in an editorial, “The arrest of two employees of a bank in Coimbatore is particularly unsettling, as the police went solely by the word of an AIADMK functionary. Neither the CCTV footage nor the testimony of other bank employees suggests any attempt on the part of those arrested to disrupt public order or, even, spread rumours. Even if the two employees did speak of the Chief Minister’s health condition, the conversation constituted a private exchange — it cannot be compared to posts on social media, even if many of these posts were just as innocuous.” 

The AIADMK is however unapologetic about the arrest. “This was not a conversation in their house, this was in a public place. Two people talk, then four people do and just like that a malicious rumour spreads. It was not wrong to get them arrested,” an AIADMK member told TNM.  

 

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