Can Social Media Retain the Values of Free Speech and Drive Democracy?

Social Media Politics

It is possibly fair to say that the Indian democratic set up has so far held up strongly against any attempt to gag quick-media. This was threatened when Information Minister Kapil Sibal talked of controlling malicious content and monitoring the networking sites but he was criticized to the point where he was compelled to express wonder and amusement at the power of social media. Now, he too has joined Twitter.

For democracy and citizenship to transform or to remain on the path of change, it is essential to know who maintains ownership of these networks and how; and if the government or the ruling political powers have a control over the same. When non-democratic governments have leverage over the content and structure of social networks, users lose the ability to access independent points of view and learn about government malfeasance. “Not only is information sharing monitored and potentially blocked, but democracy activists avoid networks connected with government authorities for fear of reprisals”, says Joshua Tucker in the Monkey Cage while analysing countries like Russia.

From an Indian perspective, while we don’t yet face very significant problems of dictatorial government, we need to explore how to put social media in the driver’s seat for democracy. How to retain values of free speech, without manufacturing content or consent and at the same time get the government involved in the process and engage in social media in a more material way than information spread.

This does put the subject of what’s genuine for consumption on the Internet up for debate. From trolls, fakes, to the marketing power and prowess of social media, there is a lot yet to be deciphered in terms of its actual outcome. Columnist George Monbiot has a serious body of work on the underlying aspects of social media and asserts that there are several forces at work in building opinions on web.

In a way, he explains, social media too ‘organizes’ itself to push forward a certain view. In effect, then, can social media be used to suggest a ‘perceived’ result? Could it cheat its consumer? The weapon used by both state and corporate players is a technique known as astroturfing. An astroturf campaign is one that mimics spontaneous grassroots mobilizations but which has, in reality, been organized. Anyone writing a comment piece in Mandarin that is critical of the Chinese government, for example, is likely to be bombarded with abuse by people purporting to be ordinary citizens, upset by the slurs against their country.

A Takshashila study elucidates that today’s governments operate in a hierarchical manner, top-down and bottom-up, in silos, bound by hard rules and distinct leadership. The hierarchical state can learn to handle emerging challenges but the learning process itself takes time due to the same structural reasons. This may be broadly true of the government and government-aided agencies in India as well as a general challenge to take up change.

The challenges— rampantly discussed on social networks— include going back to institutions that may have betrayed citizens by underperforming duties. And this includes the Parliament where someone was heard saying that social media is now the foster home for more meaningful debates than the Parliament itself. However, the channel and structure of communication, when put aside, does lead us back to the deep rooted question of changing values as media outlets and outrage spills evolve in expression.

 

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