Living with the genie called social media

Social media is a genie that cannot be put back into the bottle. We have to learn to live with it — and adapt our own ways to its demands.

The nature of the era we are living in today — the era of the information revolution, the Internet, the World Wide Web — was illustrated startlingly by our own First Citizen last month. Just a day after he was sworn in as our 13th President, Pranab Mukherjee announced that he would be opening a Facebook account to receive and respond to comments and queries from the public.

In fact his fellow Bengali, Paschimbanga chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, has beaten him to it, with a popular and widely-read website that the media mines daily for news stories about her views. Just three years ago, when I first went on social media, it was fashionable for Indian politicians to sneer at the use of Twitter and Facebook. Today, our new President has made it clear that these are essential tools for credible and accountable political leaders.
This is all the more striking because I once asked a distinguished senior politician what he thought about the emergence of these social media tools. Wouldn’t they help getting our message across, I asked; why weren’t they more widely used — was it ignorance or was it apathy? He replied: “I don’t know, and I don’t care.” Which rather explains what we’re up against!
Social media reflects the great technological transformations of our time, where information that in the past could only be delivered through the heavy apparatuses of traditional media is now instantly available on mobile phones. This means news travels faster, is more widely accessible, and is easily portable. Governments can’t keep up: if they try to suppress a news story, some passer-by or tourist with a cellphone could have filmed the event, thereby undermining the official story. Most people now carry in their pockets a level of technology that just a decade ago would have required many more (and much larger) pieces of equipment.
Each of us can be what the BBC’s Nik Gowing calls an “information doer”; each of us can make, transmit and receive news in ways that the governments of the world cannot fully control. Gowing writes, “It was a chance video taken by a New York investment banker that dramatically swung public perceptions of police handling of the G20 protests (in the UK). Those 41 seconds swiftly exposed apparently incomplete police explanations of how and why a particular protester, Ian Tomlinson, died. They alone forced a level of instant accountability from the police about their orders, behaviour and operation... Such examples confirm how new information technologies and dynamics are together driving a wave of democratisation and accountability. It shifts and redefines the nature of power in such moments. It also creates a new policy vulnerability and brittleness for institutions, who then struggle even harder to maintain public confidence.”
Globally, it remains true that most major institutions of power still do not appreciate the full scale and implications of the dramatic new real-time media trend and its profound impact on their credibility.
The potential impact of social media going “viral” thanks to today’s interconnected technologies has already been apparent in the Arab Spring, where Twitter, Google and Facebook messages helped create the famous Jasmine Revolution. In India, we have seen the more malign side of this problem with the spate of distorted, harassing and threatening messages, Web posts and SMSes earlier this month. These widespread (and frequently redistributed, re-tweeted or re-posted) transmissions first roused Muslim anger about alleged atrocities against their co-religionists in the Northeast (often using doctored images from such benign events as Tibetan earthquake relief to suggest the victims had suffered anti-Muslim violence) and then instilled panic amongst northeasterners about the threat of reprisals. It is almost impossible for governments to counteract such malicious use of social media, and any steps they do take are often too late to prevent the damage that has already occurred. This is a phenomenon we must be conscious of even if there are no easy prescriptions to remedy its dangers.
The world is full of examples of what Gowing calls “non-professional information doers”: hundreds of millions of amateurs with an electronic eye who can now be found anywhere. As many as five billion people worldwide — including 84 per cent of Americans, more than 70 per cent of Chinese and perhaps 60 per cent of Indians — now use mobile phones. This has led to an extraordinary transformation in the reach and range of our freedom of expression. These mobile phone users all get messages out.
The core implications are striking. We have all heard about the so-called 24x7 news and information cycle, but with social media the pressure of the news cycle can build up not just over a few hours but often in no more than a few minutes. As images, facts and allegations emanating from cellphones and digital cameras go viral, they undermine and discredit official versions, present an alternative reality in the face of government denials and, fuelled by dissenters and expatriates, rebound onto the evolution of the situation itself. Twitter and digital cameras had a huge impact on the Iranian protests after the disputed re-election of President Mohammed Ahmedinejad. Despite Tehran’s attempts to manage the crisis, social media kept the protests alive for far longer, and with more prolonged intensity, than they could have survived without that digital fuel.
With such instant scrutiny, governmental power is rendered more vulnerable. The WikiLeaks saga demonstrated this too, since the publication of classified material on the Internet circumvented both government control and the restraints that are normally observed by traditional media. In the old days, governments assumed they could command the information high ground in a crisis. That is simply no longer true.
These are all trends of which governmental policymakers must be aware. In a democracy, knee-jerk reactions against social media, including attempts to shut down inconvenient messages, are doomed to fail. This is a genie that cannot be put back into the bottle. We have to learn to live with it — and adapt our own ways to its demands.

The writer is an MP from Thiruvananthapuram

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