Sometime back, the social media page of the Kerala police invited suggestions for names for its soon-to-be released mobile application. Using a sarcasm-filled wordplay, a Thiruvananthapuram native suggested ‘pollapp’ (roughly translating to ‘trouble’ in Malayalam). Interestingly, it was not that comment but the police’s response in accepting that title that won more likes and comments. Within months, an app with the slightly changed name ‘POL APP’ was released by Kerala police.
The social media handles of the Kerala police, which even surpassed the likes of the Facebook page of the New York Police Department in 2019, are hugely popular for its posters, memes and funny videos. However, they often tread the razor-thin line between being funny and offensive. The social media team has faltered several times while playing to the gallery. This week, the team had to remove two videos from its social media handles following criticism that it infringed upon individuals’ dignity and privacy.
Embellished with background music and filmy dialogues, the two recent videos featured actual footage of two youths – one caught for a traffic violation and the other for abusing a woman through social media. In one video, the youth, whose speeding bike dismantled a road barricade, follows the directives of the police to restore it. It used dialogues from the Mohanlal starer, Sagar Alias Jacky, to draw parallels between the good and bad versions of the character, hinting that cops can be tough with offenders. The other video has visuals of a youngster being arrested on charges of cyber abuse. Though showing the timely arrest was commendable, many criticised the way the police used visuals to insult the accused. The comments section too turned into a platform for virtual mob lynching with followers making suggestions such as making the accused wash toilets at COVID-19 centres.
Stating that the police do not hold any constitutional mandate to run a social media page, advocate Harish Vasudevan said that there are neither guidelines to run a page nor is anyone held accountable for such mistakes. “As per the Kerala Police Act, the details of the crime have to be kept confidential. Recording and publishing videos of an accused is an offense. More than that, the police, who are responsible for protecting the dignity of citizens, turn violators. No one is made accountable for posting or removing the contents. It is a waste of public money,” Harish said.
He added that such incidents also raise questions of privacy. “I may divulge personal information to the police during an inspection. But they have to keep it confidential. Publishing a video showing that I was at a particular location at this time itself is an infringement of my privacy. If it is for awareness purposes, they should hide the identity of the person,” he said.
Harish also criticised the recent ‘Enjoy Enjaami’ recreation by the Kerala police to spread awareness on COVID-19, stating that it trivialises the image of the police as a law enforcement authority.
Though she hailed the awareness activities of the social media team of the Kerala police, advocate J Sandhya said that the department lacks a proper mechanism to screen contents. “Incidentally, it is people from the weaker sections of society who become victims of such videos. That is because the police are confident that they will not file or pursue a human rights violation case against them,” she said. She added that publication of videos of accused also violates the concept that the accused should be considered innocent until proven guilty.
“We have to remember that something published on the internet can sometimes stay forever. It’s like stamping the person as a criminal forever,” said Sandhya.
Comparing the Facebook pages of the Kerala women and child development department and the Kerala police, Harish said that the former is a classic example of using the platform to spread awareness messages in an effective way.
ADGP Manoj Abraham, who is in charge of the social media team of the Kerala police, said that they immediately deleted the content. “We will delete content if it crosses the borders of decency. However, we cannot place restrictions against the use of humour. Such restrictions will affect the kind of work the social media handles are doing now,” he said.
Abraham said that deterrence and awareness are the major purposes of the social media handles. “If a person is arrested for spreading a communal message, merely publishing information of the arrest will not serve any purpose. Others will continue doing similar crimes. We create videos that people will share widely,” he said.
The social media handles of the Kerala police have been in the news for both good and bad reasons in the past. While their popular awareness videos won praise, several innovative campaigns not only failed miserably but also caused much embarrassment to the police.
One such ‘adventure’ was ‘PC Kuttanpilla Speaking’, a series about keeping an eye on the cyberworld. It, however, turned out to be a platform for ‘cyberbullying’ through its ‘roasting’ videos. After a targeted ‘roasting’ of a female TikTok celebrity, ‘PC Kuttanpillai’ learnt some hard lessons from social media regarding cyber abuse and was withdrawn from the platform.
Last year, the social media page also withdrew an offensive meme following the public statement of Nigerian actor Samuel Robinson, who was known for the popular Malayalam film Sudani from Nigeria. In order to create awareness on online fraud, the police used Samuel’s photo in the meme. The post was removed immediately after Samuel slammed the Kerala police for generalising Nigerian people as criminals for a crime committed by a few others.
Jisha Surya is an independent journalist living in Kerala.