Thursday, July 25, 2013

Social Media: Freedom Yes, License No

K G Suresh, 
Senior Fellow & Editor, VIF

The recent expose about Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot allegedly buying ‘Likes’ for his official Facebook page in Istanbul, the ‘Twitter’ war between the ruling Congress and the main Opposition BJP and an outrageous tweet by Congress leader Shakeel Ahmed virtually defending the terrorist outfit ‘Indian Mujahideen’ have once again brought the spotlight back on the role of social media.

The events also saw the social media directly or indirectly setting the agenda for the mainstream media and thereby reviving the debate on the relationship between the two, particularly in a developing country like India.

According to a joint study by market research firm IMRB International and the Internet and Mobile Association of India, India currently has nearly 20 million Twitter users. Facebook has also reported that its Monthly Active Users in the country doubled to 78 million in Q1 2013.

With a burgeoning number of users joining the online community world wide, the importance of social media is significant - not only for the purpose of connecting with the people we know and befriending strangers but also for the purpose of disseminating information thereby informing, influencing, moulding and building mass opinions.

The Anna Movement against corruption in India exemplified the power of social media. While critics claim that the anti-graft crusade was a television generated movement, the fact remains that a large number of youth who joined the campaign across the country were deeply influenced by the social media, although aided and abetted by the visual media.

We have witnessed the use of social media technology during the widespread unrest in the Middle East – Libya, Syria, Egypt and Bahrain.

In fact, the experiences in Egypt and Tunisia have prompted the Syrian Government to maintain a strong surveillance on the use of new media technologies. The Chinese and Pakistanis have often restricted access to social media on political and cultural grounds.

In India too, the Central Government has made futile attempts to censor social media but have backtracked following huge hue and cry.

In neighbouring Nepal, the importance of these informal channels was recognised after the February 2005 takeover by the then King Gyanendra, when almost all the formal channels of information were blocked and only a few online media and blogs remained to share information with the public.

It is not only during unrest and rebellions that the social media has come handy. They have proved to be immensely invaluable during natural catastrophes and even emergency situations like the 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai.

However, what’s more interesting is the emergence of social media not only as a crucial source of information for the mainstream media but also as a key competitor in the race for breaking news.

It is said that Twitter users posted the message about the death of singer Whitney Houston twenty-seven minutes before the mainstream media broke the news.

According to the Telegraph, tweets were posted at a rate of around 70 tweets every five seconds during the Mumbai terror attacks. Blogs and social networking sites were abuzz with news, photo, audio-visual and eyewitness accounts as the events unfolded.

Back home, in India, we have had former UN Under Secretary General and Minister of State for External Affairs, Shashi Tharoor, who lost his first job in the council of Ministers following a series of tweets revealing juicy information about the goings on in the highly lucrative Indian Premier League. The young, media savvy author and columnist was not the only loser in the episode. His friend and now wife Sunanda Pushkar lost her stakes (sweat equity) in the Kochi team, IPL wizard Lalit Modi lost his job and Kerala lost its only IPL team.

The episode provided lot of masala to the mainstream media. So did the tweets of actor director Farah Khan on the SRK-Sirish Kunder spat. The tweets of film stars and starlets often grab media headlines.

Instead of calling the media to air their enlightened views, on subjects ranging from tooth aches to child births, the celebrities, including the Big B and SRK, have taken to the social media to reach out to their fans, hit out at their rivals and remain in news.

The politicos have also joined the bandwagon, with the BJP leaders taking the lead. If Gujarat Chief Minister and Leader of BJP’s Poll Campaign Committee Narendra Modi is among the celebs with huge twitter following, Leader of Opposition Sushma Swaraj’s tweets keep the party beat correspondents updated with the latest in the party and parliament while veteran leader L K Advani has shocked and surprised many within and outside the party with his blogs on issues ranging from media to Modi and films to foreign policy. Digvijay Singh and ManishTiwari lead the Congress offensive on the social media.

Lauding the role of social media, particularly in cornering senior journalists Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi in the wake of the Nira Radia tapes, even as mainstream media remained a mute spectator, columnist Sachin Kalbag wrote in the Mail Today, “ Online media in India rarely, if ever, gets its due. But it is social media, with its ability to become, as a senior journalist put it, a lynch mob that is something that media professionals would do well to remember. It is debatable whether a "lynch mob" or a "mass movement" would describe the phenomenon. It does not matter, really, because social media has well and truly arrived in India.

A series of projects funded by the Australian Research Council, UNESCO, UNDP and other international non-government organisations have been undertaken to enlist new media to help poverty alleviation in India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Indonesia.

Although each initiative is adapted to local circumstances, the common objective is to give local communities the skills to set up their own independent and community-based media resources to address issues that are important to these communities. Such issues might include health, education or politics, and the media used range from local radio stations to new media forms such as websites.

Finding a Voice: Making technological change socially effective and culturally empowering is one of the leading projects in the programme.. Taking a participatory approach to research, aiming to empower people through finding their own voice, the project looks at using old and new media technologies to reduce poverty in poor communities in terms of people's participation. This is achieved by assessing people's capacity to participate in various activities such as self expression and freedom of speech.
Of late, Government departments in India too have taken to the social media to reach out to the new generations. One of the success stories in this regard has been Census 2011.

According to Zee Research Group (ZRG), Census 2011, a service from the Census Commission of India under the Union Home Ministry, has been one of the best offering of the Government on the social networking media. Census 2011 was logged on 24x7 on Facebook with live updates, comments and responses from the department.

The office of the Registrar General and Census Commissioner of India thought of the Facebook idea soon after it released the momentous Census 2011 findings. The result has been more than satisfying.

According to Registrar General and Commissioner of Census 2011, Dr C Chandramouli, “This initiative really helped to connect with the people. The responses of the people have been overwhelming. People have been very inquisitive and thoughtful throughout and have been actively participating and commenting on our regular updates.” He is not averse to criticism and looks forward to some constructive suggestions to engage the public better.

Several other Ministries and departments including the Ministry of External Affairs too have joined the bandwagon.

With India emerging as a leading Facebook market, the anxiety of the Government to reach out to GenX is understandable. A Tata Consultancy ‘GenY Survey 2011-2012’ of nearly 12,300 high school students across 12 Indian cities found that 85 percent of the students use Facebook.

Interestingly, Socialogue, a survey on social media trends and behaviour, revealed that 56 percent of Indians would prefer giving up television than giving up social networking sites. It revealed that nearly 37 per cent of people prefer a large network of friends as compared to close friends.

A study earlier this year by Mumbai's Iris Knowledge Foundation and the Internet and Mobile Association of India claimed that 78 million Facebook users will "wield a tremendous influence" over 160 Lok Sabha seats in the upcoming general elections. In these so-called "high impact" constituencies, Facebook users constitute either 10% of the total vote, or command greater numbers than the margin of victory in the 2009 election.

However, there are also equally significant statistics that do not support such findings and are also worrisome as far as social media is concerned. Although India ranked third this year in the number of active users next only to China and US, yet the overall Internet penetration in the country is a mere 11 per cent.

India on last count had 120 million active Internet users, up from 81 million users in 2010. Of the 10 top countries on active number of users, India is at the bottom in regard to levels of penetration achieved as against China with a penetration rate of 40 per cent and an active user base of 511 Million. China is followed by United States with 240 million users.

The social media has also become a platform for propagating separatism, communal hatred and vulgarity. Morphed photos of the Muslim-Buddhist violence in Myanmar were extensively used to force hundreds of people belonging to the North East to flee the southern metropolis of Bangalore.

Unsubstantiated reports and gossip are often passed on as genuine information and unlike mainstream media, which has stringent filtration mechanisms in place, many of these fly by the night websites post fiction as facts, throwing to winds journalistic norms such as accuracy and objectivity. Blackmailing has become a norm in the absence of any monitoring or regulatory system. Sensationalism is the only criterion and page hits the only yardstick.

Kashmiri and Sikh separatists are aggressively exploiting the platform to provoke and lure the youth to their ranks whereas the so-called Internet Hindus are hitting back with vengeance. The depth to which the discourse have fallen is appalling. Nicknames such as ‘feku’ and ‘pappu’ have been given to leaders of national political parties by their ideological opponents taking the political debate to an all time low.

The negative impact of the growing influence of social media is also causing concern to sociologists and educationists.

According to ‘Global Youth Online Behaviour Survey’ conducted by Microsoft, India ranked third in the list of 25 countries where 53 percent of the surveyed children aged between eight and 17 admitted that they were victims of cyber bullying.

Even as they are increasingly coming to terms with social media or citizen journalism as a major source of information, leading mainstream media journalists feel that the impact of social media has been overestimated.

Asserting that mere information is not journalism, Richard Sambrook, the former director of the BBC Global News Division, says one gets a lot of things, when one opens up Twitter in the morning, but not journalism.

“Journalism needs discipline, analysis, explanation and context. It is still a profession”, says Sambrook. According to him, the value that gets added with journalism is judgment, analysis and explanation - and that makes the difference.

While the impact of social media should not be underestimated and rather harnessed effectively for nation building, it is important to ensure that anti-social and anti-national elements don’t get away scot-free under the garb of freedom of speech and expression.


Social media will have to be made accountable to the society and the nation at large. It is too powerful a tool to be allowed to flourish and demolish societal and national interests in splendid isolation.

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