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In the times of social media,a debate on its pros and cons

Who’s afraid of social media? As the applause for winners of the sixth Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Awards died down,this question took centre stage.

Written by Ipsita Chakravarty | New Delhi | Published: July 24, 2013 5:24 am

Who’s afraid of social media?

As the applause for winners of the sixth Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Awards died down,this question took centre stage. Less than a year after messages on social media spread panic in the Northeast and two girls in Mumbai were arrested for views posted on Facebook,it was a compelling question,with no easy answers.

It gave rise to a riveting debate,moderated by Sagarika Ghose,deputy editor at CNN-IBN,and Seema Chishti,consultng editor at The Indian Express.

Can social media set the agenda for mainstream media? Does it have a fractious relationship with the political class? What is its role in a democracy? Should there be anonymity on the Internet? Is it a dangerous,anarchic force or does it democratise information? Can it jeopardise national security?

By the end of the debate,the panelists broadly agreed that social media was a reality everyone had to accept; that content,not the platform,was the key issue; and that more sophisticated rules of engagement would eventually evolve. Netiquette,not censorship,was the need of the hour.

Much of the debate was spent in trying to fathom the nature of the beast. Law and Communications & IT Minister Kapil Sibal began by saying social media was a “developing story”.

“I don’t think we understand the enormity and power of social media,” Sibal said. “It diminishes geography,destroys times,demolishes hierarchy,erases identity.” At Tahrir Square,social media “changed the totalitarian character of a regime”. “But what is its effect on a democracy?”

Leader of the Opposition in Rajya Sabha,Arun Jaitley,agreed that social media is an “instrument of expression that can also have an irresponsible character”,but stressed that it also helps “keeps the system on its toes”.

Information and Broadcasting minister Manish Tewari called the Internet “the most audacious experiment in anarchy”,a “vast,ungoverned space” teeming with individuals who had multiple identities. Democracies and governments had to learn to accommodate voices from this “virtual civilisation”.

Aroon Purie,Editor-in-Chief of India Today,on the other hand,described social media as “a great opportunity”,“a two-way street” between journalists and readers,and which “tells you what people want to know”.

Madhu Kishwar,professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies,had unqualified praise for social media,where she could find an outlet when conventional media shut its doors on her. She said when a TV interview of Amartya Sen had “made her blood boil”,she was able to tweet about it and reach,within minutes,a countrywide network of indignation.

“Social media is the only medium on which I can challenge a Nobel Laureate,” Kishwar said. “Mainstream media does not give us space to nail the untruths,social media does.”

Anant Goenka,head of New Media at the Express Group,felt that the influence of social media may be overstated. “You just have to look at the numbers,” Goenka said.

“Twitter reaches the influential. But it reaches less than 10 per cent of the people that conventional media reach.” But it could help improve stories,Goenka felt,and it could help journalists find sources online.

On the question of how politicians and political parties should engage with social media,Jaitley said,“A tweet won’t become a vote”,and Twitter wars wouldn’t swing an election. Sibal broadly agreed,but added that social media worked to the opposition’s advantage,“since they don’t have to answer questions”.

Sibal expressed a strong opinion on anonymity on social media. “When you talk about social media,you’re talking really about non-formal journalists. Everyone’s telling their own story. But unlike formal journalists,they do not reveal their names or the basis for their stories,” he said.

Tewari said “privacy should not be confused with anonymity”.

Inevitably,the debate turned to the regulation of social media. “Even in free speech,” Jaitley said,“there are constitutionally prescribed restrictions.” So,in some cases,the state was empowered to act against individuals. But regulation should come in only when something created a “frenzy”,he said.

Goenka made the point that even mainstream news campaigns could be aimed at creating a frenzy. “I think you need to look at the content,not the platform,” he said. “What always works is consistent,accurate information.”

Former chief election commissioner S Y Quraishi,who was in the audience,said that anonymity helped to protect those who wanted to express an opinion online. The Indian Express Editor-in-Chief,Shekhar Gupta,felt anonymity “brings out the worst in people”.

Gupta took a poll to see who was afraid of social media. No one on stage or in the audience raised their hand. “Maybe everyone’s afraid to admit they’re afraid of social media,” Gupta joked.

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