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Sunday, July 25, 2021

Why democracy needs social media

Social media corporations do have substantial power. But allowing authoritarian governments to curb free speech on them will lead to even worse outcomes


June 17, 2021 5:54:43 pm
Digital democracy can only evolve through platforms of freedom.

Written By Abhik Choudhury

Has social media cumulatively helped the average citizen more in this pandemic than most modern governments? Yes. It connected broken healthcare, breaking news, kind volunteers and depressed loved ones through a digital string in a way a lot of heads of states failed to do. But we need these mediums for even more important reasons — to amplify the crying rallies of the weak and curtail the trampling arrogance of the strong.

First, let’s see what made Nigeria come to the conclusion that Twitter is “undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence”. President Muhammadu Buhari on June 1 tweeted in response to the nationwide protests since last year calling a ban of the notorious police unit with a “license to kill”, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) and the incessant military oppression: “Many of those misbehaving today are too young to be aware of the destruction and loss of lives that occurred during the Nigerian Civil War. Those of us in the fields for 30 months, who went through the war, will treat them in the language they understand.” Twitter deleted the tweet and an injured ego of one man banned the app indefinitely for the entire nation.

Disregard whichever side of the spectrum you’re on, does this sound like a head of state looking for peace or a dictator risen from a democracy openly threatening to take the lives of those who fail to agree with him? For, when you take complete control of the media and want your personal rules to govern them, you unabashedly allow propaganda to take precedence over news. Which political party in the world will say, “Oh yes, sorry we went too far with that post, please delete it or term it as manipulated media lest the layman misunderstands.

Certainly, for now, these media corporations will be just another government vehicle to safeguard the chair, the citizens. And for the millionth time, no matter where you’re from, government is not synonymous with the nation. A nation is a garden of centuries of parties, cultures, art, architecture, values and dreams. Each government that comes and goes is a small drop in the infinite ocean of our legacy — they are important but using them interchangeably is confusing the temporary clothes we wear for the permanent soul inside.

When Donald Trump tweeted “Big protest in DC on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!” and thousands of rioters crashed the Capitol complex on exactly January 6th, was he the President of the US or was he the US? Was Twitter wrong in deleting his tweet and suspending his account or would you rather believe that he would have proactively taken responsibility for the same himself? This is precisely why we will always need some media that the government has no control over, else in the garb of “the nation’s sovereignty will be undermined” they will keep undermining the truth, for almost always it hurts those in power the most.

One must further question motives when Russia claims absolute deletion rights of any post it deems unfit to contain child pornography, drug abuse information or calls for minors to commit suicide but slows speed and fines them repeatedly for not taking down calls to protest. A lot of developing countries are using the same Trojan horse of “it’s for the safety of our citizens”’ but actually want the wolf marks on snow to disappear from the sheep’s attention. Besides Nigeria, Turkey, Iran, Egypt, Turkmenistan, Uganda and North Korea have either temporarily or indefinitely banned Twitter in the past and the rest of the world, especially those eyeing to become superpowers need to choose their ideals accordingly.

China, this March, banned the words “stock market” from all homegrown social media as their stocks majorly plunged. Last week, to censor conversations around the Tiananmen Square massacre, China blocked all “candle and cake” emojis from Weibo. Yes, that’s the level of control every government (authoritarian or democratic) will have if they start asking for a compulsory veto on what’s appropriate and what’s not on social media.

Take the hypothetical example of an Indian state creating a Nigeria-like special force that can search and arrest without notice or warrant — for the sake of argument let’s say one day they beat up a 23-year-old college student Rizwan, who wasn’t even in the country at the time of the purported crime. He is sent home after 45 days of custody due to lack of proof and his livid family and friends start a digital protest -#ChiefMinisterResign and #SorryRizwan to bring justice for the young academician and the government overnight orders all social media corporations to ban every content related to Rizwan or be ready to pay a fine of Rs 1 crore as stated in the new IT guidelines created to protect the sovereignty of the country. Take a deep breath and ask yourself whose sovereignty exactly is being protected here because without a medium allowing us to find some semblance of togetherness during dictatorial steps, we all sooner or later will be Rizwan.

The elephant in the room: “If not kept under government control these multi-billion dollar giants will become too powerful.” That’s just absurd because pretty much every modern government of the last five decades is directly or indirectly influenced by corporations.

Digital democracy can only evolve through platforms of freedom. For the first time in history, we have an instrument that can question the seemingly invincible governments, make them accountable and bring sustained change driven by people beyond one vote in years.

This isn’t a love letter to social media, I have run million dollars worth of branded ads on them for over a decade and have quite intricately seen their thousand filters with the rare ability to persuade the obstinate — in fact, a significant number of modern governments ironically would not have come in power sans these platforms giving them unadulterated access to their own citizens and mobilising propaganda through planted hashtags in ways old school media still can’t fathom. According to Google Transparency Report, political parties mostly in the last two years have spent around $800 million (Rs 5,900 crore) on election ads. Just on Facebook India, political ads of Rs 107 crore were run in the last two years. The dark parody is that the political parties need social media to survive far more than the reverse to stay afloat.

Simply summarised, if the choice is between the two devils — corporations that sell my data to make money versus the very same governments who not only buy it during elections but also treat me like one post winning, I will have an extra serving of the former, please. The honourable thief a thousand times over self-serving politicians.

The writer is the chief strategist & founder, Salt and Paper Consulting. He is also a visiting faculty at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, New Delhi

 

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