Monday , 25 June 2018

Who’s afraid of the social media?

Frederick Noronha


Suddenly, there’s a moral panic happening over the impact of the social media in Goa. Politicians, a section of the media, and others too appear convinced that the social media is hugely problematic, unfair and bigoted.

To start with, let’s face the facts. The social media is not at all new to Goa. Far from it. Because in part of its large diaspora population, Goa has been experimenting with the social media for close to a quarter of a century now.

The first two Goa-related websites, and a long influential mailing-list, were set up in the mid-1990s. Agreed, a website is a bit more hierarchical, and controlled, compared to the social media. You need to know the persons running it (and they need to know you, mostly) before you get your content up there, on board.

But, depending on how a website is run, and what those running it believe in, a site can also be scurrilous, defamatory and loosely-run.

So, why is the social media being seen as a problem only now?

One possible reason is that today almost everyone and their dog have access to technology. This openness can be scary. You can’t keep track of who’s saying what. Fake identities and fake news seem to make things worse, though there are sites specifically set up to bust the latter even in India now.

Admittedly, there’s a lot of censorship going on out there. For instance, James Wilson, a Kerala-based civil engineer turned data-cruncher and fact-checker, who has done a lot of work on tracking the whole contentious demonetisation issue, came in for a shadow-ban from Twitter, as the site explained recently. Indian adults are treated like children, and a whole lot of porn sites are blocked to browsers in this part of the world, though such ‘bans’ can easily be bypassed if you’re even slightly tech-savvy.

Yet, if someone wants to run a scurrilous operation, it might be difficult to get stopped. But it needs to be seen in context. For that matter, there are a handful of newspapers running blatantly communal operations too, some connected with politicians, but nobody seems to be having a problem with that.

Today, the numbers seem to have made all the change.

Many more people now have access to the cybermedium. I recall, in the early 1990s, having to explain even what an email address was to others who noticed the strange @ symbol on my visiting card. Today, our young people (or ‘digital natives’, who have been using technology from their early days) are far more advanced in their knowledge than our generation is. If my mobile phone plays up, chances are that some 17 or even 12 year old might know the answer, not me.

The numbers are frightening. It’s far more difficult to keep track with who’s saying what in cyberspace. These numbers can either be seen either as a huge threat, or as a big opportunity.

Years after giving Cyberage computers to our young people, while many of these might lie broken and disused, a few are also being well made use of. Now, technology, as we all know, is a doubled-edged sword. There is no guarantee that people will use it to say only good things about those in power.

Added to this, a new angle is given to the whole debate. The expat Goans are being blamed for speaking out just about anything on the social media, for not being in touch with local issues, and for being biased and bigoted against anything happening back home in Goa. A televised discussion on one of the local networks made exactly these points the other day, and seemed to echo the concern of politicians obviously worried about all the flak coming their way.

But then, this is a manufactured debate. To blame the expat Goan is like creating a red herring, because it is easier to disinherit this section and question their right to take an interest in issues back home.

Maybe absence makes the heart grow fonder, and this segment also feels more strongly about issues here. It is true that their expectations are high, sometimes subconsciously comparing life in Goa with that in their adopted homes. But then, even while we in Goa seem to believe that this section should keep its opinions to itself, the debate in the rest of India has reached another level. Very recently, the national TV channels were discussing whether expat Indians should be given proxy voting rights. Or what would be the best way to involve them somehow (though not all agree) in the Indian electoral process.

There is a touch of irony in this whole debate over the social media though. It is easily demonstrable that those who made the most of social media while in the Opposition, today fear the heat being turned back on to them. The very fora which were set up prior to past elections to target then governments, are coming back to haunt politicians who might be on the ruling side now.

Is social media misusing the freedom of expression? This is a question that gets constantly raised. But by raising it in this manner, we are skewing the debate in a certain direction. Just about anything can be misused. You could misuse a knife, a newspaper, a telephone, a two-thousand rupee note, or even a shoe. Think about it.

Sometimes, we ask for trouble when we run online ventures without enough thought and insight. There are just two simple rules that every social media network should, in my view, scrupulously stick to. The first is that no off-topic postings should be allowed in a fora set up for a specific purpose. Many find it difficult to understand this rule, or even the concept of off-topic. Some prefer to make exceptions for themselves when they want to post something irrelevant. But the no-offtopic-post rule can indeed avoid a lot of problems. Of course, an occasional offtopic post can be sometimes tolerated, especially if marked as such.

Secondly, another major rule at all times is simply this: be polite at all times in your posts, and never rude with each other. From this flows the corollary that we can make our point without needlessly offending one another, without name-calling, without criticising each other’s religious or other beliefs, and without reducing every single debate to a BJP-versus-Congress battle.

We obviously have a lot to gain from the social media. If only we understand it a bit better….

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