Sunday, February 25, 2024

Social media and the ILP demand

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By Patricia Mukhim

Social media in this country has come to stay. Social media encompasses the entire web space that allows a citizen to become an, “activist-citizen- journalist.” Today anyone with a mobile phone can capture an event or parts of it and post it over the web in anyone of the sites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc., Social media is attractive because it breaks the top down approach of traditional media which bestows on the privileged few (journalists) the power to report news. Social media challenges the authority, function and status of journalism as we have seen it over the decades. Some have labelled it as the upstart online sibling of the print media. It would be fair to say that the traditional media no longer sets the agenda today. It is the citizen journalist who cares enough to look for news, investigate issues, seek out answers through RTI queries and then present it to the electronic and print media that actually set the agenda. Television channels like CNN-IBN encourage this sort of citizen journalism.

Weblogs have transformed the news consumer into a producer. Across the world we see scandals and scams being exposed not by traditional media or by journalists on a pay roll (who have taken their jobs for granted), but by social media activists. In fact, social media grants that hallowed space to every citizen to be his or her own journalist. But is all news posted on the web factual? One of the key principles of journalism as it has been practiced and preached since its inception is accuracy. Charles Prestwich Scott a British journalist, publisher and politician who edited the Manchester Guardian until his death in 1932 said, “Comment is free but facts are sacred.” According to Scott even editorial comment has its responsibilities: He says, “it is well to be frank; it is even better to be fair”. His views were that a newspaper should have a “soul of its own”, with staff motivated by a “common ideal.” How close we are today to these ideals is a matter of debate. But some things don’t change. Facts are verifiable. And traditional media (newspapers and television channels) can be held for libel if they tarnish reputations. They can also be censured by the Press Council of India. But who regulates social media? How much of what is placed on the weblog is factually correct and how much is the author’s own one-sided view of an issue.

With smartphones taking over our lives journalists nowadays receive ‘news’ accompanied by pictures over ‘WhatsApp’ or ‘Chat.’ While this is an exciting way of getting there first with ‘breaking news’ the problem is that such news takes time and effort to verify. While the person who gives us the news must have done so with due diligence, he or she is still an interested party. One of the things that journalism teaches is ‘objectivity.’ The journalist is not expected to have any vested interest in reporting certain news and blacking out something else. A citizen journalist more often is an aggrieved citizen. Whether that grief is personal or affects a large number of citizens is the moot point. Newspapers cannot allow individual citizens with a personal/political motive to set the agenda for them. That we do it all the time because it is easier for us to get news right on our desks without having to walk the extra mile to do the real digging, is a different matter. In fact this is a highly problematic domain.

Interestingly the internet penetration in the six states of North East India barring Assam as of 2011 is only 0.39 %. Assam has internet penetration of 0.64%. Social media continues to be an urban phenomenon. But things are fast changing and last mile connectivity of both electricity and internet bandwidth is catching up even in the six other states. Even with poor internet connectivity India is the third largest user of internet after China and the US. Hence we are getting into a world where views can be shared, ideologies espoused and politics discussed over social media. The most potent effect of social media that we experienced was in 2012 post the Bodoland riots when images were spread of how Muslims in Assam were being tortured and killed. We all know that those images were actually of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar who were under attack by Buddhist monks. But inflamed religious passions have the potential to defy reason. North Easterners studying and working in South and West India came under attack and rushed home by the thousands. This is the toxicity of social media. The smartphone is like a time bomb that can be held in our palms and triggered off any moment. In the hands of a psychopath it could lead to disastrous consequences in a country that is so diverse racially, ethnically and by religion.

It would be interesting to look at how social media, including mobile phone messaging, blogs and particularly Facebook drew such a huge crowd (unprecedented for Shillong) to the pro-ILP rally on November 30. In fact social media has become the prime instrument for crowd sourcing. We need to look at the trends in social media messaging since the ILP demand started in August this year. Several facebook pages have come up with names that reek of radical Khasi nationalism. Most are open sites and are administered by one or two people. Language is no barrier because angry youth are venting their spleen in their own language – Khasi. Even the swear words are in Khasi. They believe they are communicating with kindred souls hence no one has the right to intrude into that private space. For them social media can be used as an unsocial medium for hitting out that the ‘other.’ This ‘other’ is the cause for all logjam in the system. The youth of today don’t know the meaning of reflection or introspection. The education system from which they have passed through has never created that environment. They have grown up blaming everyone else but themselves.  Most of these young people join Facebook looking for an incestuous group of collaborators. Many are naïve enough to believe that a Facebook page affords anonymity. That is delusional to say the least. A smart IT whizkid can track down the user from the Internet Protocol (IP) number from which a Facebook page is created. I think that is how the state has been able to ban many of these sites that fuel hatred and have perhaps led to the kind of jingoism that Shillong is witnessing today.  I am sure that those who orchestrated the huge turnout at the pro-ILP rally must be buoyed by a sense of achievement.

But social media is a double-edged sword. While it can rally people around a cause and render help in times of disaster; while it sources crowds from the virtual ‘likes’ into a physical support at a designated space, it can also be a negative force multiplier. This country has 550 million youth searching for a voice and relevance. Is social media the best medium for redressing grievances or is it a sponge that soaks up the anger and fury in the virtual world?

 These days we also have what is known as ‘slacktivism.’ The Urban Dictionary defines slacktivism as an act of participating in obviously pointless activities as an expedient alternative to actually expending effort to fix a problem. Signing an email petition to stop rampant crime is slacktivism. Many of us are familiar with Change.Org an online petition for every issue under the sun. While we may respond to one of two mails seeking our signatures we are soon overcome by compassion fatigue.

The point one is trying to make is that social media, howsoever it is deconstructed is here to stay. For good or for bad it will remain with us until something else catches our imagination. Even though social media is a product of corporate financial capital, even the Leftists cannot resist it’s lure. And that is the reach and breadth of social media.  

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