Social Media for Better Governance


Dr Rao VBJ Chelikani 

Freedom to express oneself is innate to a human being and hence, it is the 'sine qua non' to the Right to Life. To express is to assert one’s existence as a human being and more so in social relations. Among all human expressions, the freedom of speech is an essential attribute of a citizen, though historically authoritarian regimes have always detested free speech by the citizens. Dealing with citizens who express their freedom of speech without showing partisan loyalty has been a nightmare for all governments. 

Let’s not come back to the examples of the maharajahs, sultans, emperors and dictators who thought that it is their right to suppress it at their will and pleasure; let’s not take the examples of the leaders of the militant Nazis, Fascist and communist parties, who thought that it is their duty to physically eliminate all dissent and revisionism. Apart from the Greeks and Romans in olden times, now, the Western liberal democracies have been nurturing this freedom as their precious democratic heritage, after long historical struggles. The citizens in those countries too, exercise great self-restraint, almost by temperament, in exercising this freedom in a spirit of dialogue to arrive at consensus and harmony. England remains a model in respecting it in the evolution of its polity. Even their imperialist policies in India had respected the freedom of speech of the protesting Indians. Now, it became a universal value in all civilized societies, as a matter of birthright of anybody living in a democracy. Meanwhile, thanks to the application of Information and communication and digital  technologies, freedom to communicate has taken the form of Social Media. Internet platforms such as Facebook and Google are headquartered in the US and follow more liberal standards laid down by American First Amendment law. 

But in India, successive Indian governments and law enforcement agencies are yet to become comfortable with Free Speech. It is the same situation not only in Russia and China, but also in many Asian, African and Latin American parliamentary governments. The authorities are scared of being criticised and opposed. They are amply justified in their prejudice, if we see the kind of criticism aired by other political leaders and their parties when they are not in power. The degree of the Opposition’s frustration is equivalent to the duration of their absence from power. Both sides trade fluently false facts and figures, trying to spread hatred with destructive intentions. Hence, now, there is competition and even conflict between the freedom of speech of the political authorities running the state and the citizen’s right to speech.

The authoritarian tendencies of the operators of the state is indicated by the official speeches, announcements and statistics which are orchestrated by the traditional Information and Public Relations departments, and which remain unverifiable and unaccounted. One best example is the way the tax-payer’ money is spent by the Administration, headed by the ministers. The most important impact of authoritarian policies is to make as many people as possible passive, indolent and dependent upon the ‘freebies’ and benefits that the political representatives would confer on them. 

The governments have at their disposal punitive measures against unpleasant criticism, such as abrupt pre-trial arrests, raids by the departmental officials into the homes and offices and long searches and enquiries to find some infraction of some rules or irregularities. There are also positive ways of buying silence by offering political posts, where the incumbent can make money or save themselves from prosecution from crimes that they have committed. These manipulations are respectfully called political negotiations for coalition governments or ministerial appointments. Public money is lavishly spent on foreign dignitaries to see that they praise the leaders and admire their acts.   

Capturing, controlling and influencing the mass media, both print and visual is easier nowadays. The media establishments, obsessed with politics or the deeds of those who are in power or those who are seeking power, are unable to fight for the Right to have more information for the citizens from the authorities. On the other hand, they are seeking exclusivity of information to themselves as a source of power. Since, they are dependent upon the authorities for their survival; for them the politicians are the only change-makers in the world. They ignore the activities of the civil societies, which do not struggle to seek power. What counts to the media are the efforts for national development to be achieved by the leaders, and not human development and social development.


II. In this context, it is the free digital space that can counter and provide an alternative to the dominant and overwhelming political discourses that are, at present, resounding with much fury or fanfare. Online platforms provide an alternative to ‘official’ or dominant socio-political truths. They are all cost-efficient tools and can be handled by the fingers of a single hand of any individual. 52% of the Indians have internet access by the end of 2022, let alone those who handle mobile phones.

First of all, at the level of individual governance, Social Media (SM) serves some personal needs of pathological nature. There is an innate need to express, to talk to share and to communicate with somebody, since man is a social animal. When it is not satisfied, people become introverted and accumulate mental tensions, till they explode abruptly and violently, damaging social harmony. So, SM is, primarily an individual or personal vehicle for self-expression to remain relevant in the society around. Thus the growth of SM promises to make people more social and less introverted. Cyberspace has enabled the coming together of many virtual participants who have strong interiorised prejudices, which can now be expressed. When expressed, shared and debated, one would see the limits of his or her views, opinions, assertions and beliefs, confronted by those expressed by others, who are also equally vehement and passionate. Others might differ and see things very differently. When the vulnerabilities, anxieties and animosities that are projected on online platforms are shared with  others, it works as a kind of group therapy for psychosocial problems. The internet is revitalising the public sphere by bringing a wide diversity of civic cultures into play, which would educate the residents in the art of living together peacefully and harmoniously. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the mission of our political actors.

The SM helps to participate in global governance, as these platforms permit connecting with people across the globe and extend one’s affiliations and loyalties beyond the national boundaries, and also share new platforms, which are being created by other nationals. These openings will prevent the dangers of any neo-nationalism that might be wrongly promoted by power-hungry nationalists, as a reaction to the past humiliations and damage that Indian people were subjected to by hordes of fanatic invaders and tricky traders. We see that social media has been playing a role to bring democratic processes to the grassroots. It prevents polarisation of the world’s different ideologies, confronting them in the presence of a vast majority of non-committed listeners.

With a single keyword being typed in Google, one can access information of their choice. This freedom is helping the inflow of information, which enables different social actors to influence and build opinions on important issues. This dissemination of information is done at a large scale and this might include fake or doctored news, here and there. With so much anonymity, easy access and no watchdogs, this information becomes wild and free. It tends to set, sometimes passionate narratives, which might set the tone for revolutionary changes. 

We notice that high-profile political leaders, personalities and many others and other micro-influencers (television actresses), ignoring the official services of I & PR Dept. are resorting to creating their own Facebook, Twitter, Apps such as FairPlay and Appa Book from Instagram and Youtube, etc. It is quite legitimate that social media is being used as a tool to mould the public discourse in a way that would favour them. Social media played an important role in the victory of Narendra Modi in the elections of 2014 in India and again Arvind Kejriwal's team used the same extensively to gain nationwide support and sympathy. Abuse and disinformation are taking place as an important culture of mediatised politics all the time, reflecting the existing political differences, and now this social media will make it transparent. Thus the digital arena, in its turn, is becoming a new space for public discourse and political struggles. 

It contributes to better governance, beyond the governments, to expose the misdeeds suffered and suggest strategies to adopt. We can hope that our e-professionals would invent more technologies like the Block Chain technology in e-governance, which would expose all delays, poor performance and corrupt practices. Social media becomes an important platform to register citizens’ dissent, protest and most importantly to speak for themselves and to be heard. These platforms can serve the citizen to directly participate in the elections at all levels and become less dependent upon the intermediaries. Protesters are now better informed to mobilise people into action and amplify their voices and various degrees of dissent. The demands of the protesters can be well-coordinated and their chants reverberate across geographies. The visual nature of the medium makes the task of eliciting support and sharing pieces of evidence of corrupt practices and other irregularities and injustices easier and simpler and more telling. 


III. Hence, now usage of social media has become a natural right for any resident and it is an individual human right as well as a people’s right and all citizens should employ it positively without fear. The internet is an equalising space like no other, and thus any kind of censorship or authority that curtails this basic freedom would also be problematic. This space can be used, misused and abused by any person depending upon one’s own level of human development, and one should be prepared to take the consequences. We should, at the same time, protect it from excessive governmental controls and surveillance. Civil society organisations should direct their efforts to make our co-citizens learn to exercise more self-restraint in their expressions and also to build social or peer pressure to mend the ways of those who deviate and digress. 

The Directives of the I & B Ministry regulations are interfering excessively in the work of the media companies and online advertisement intermediaries, without any demand from the consumer associations. The Indian Government is enforcing, now and then, a ‘complete information blackout’ and Internet clampdowns, as a recurrent feature to prevent the spread of dangerous information and suppress the dissenting voices. Such ‘information blackouts’ are similar to those that are experienced by the Indian people during the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi in 1973. It is good that the GoI has informed the Bombay High Court that it would not notify soon its Fact Check Unit (FCU) to flag content on SM that it considers false or fake about the Government. The Courts have to judge whether such a Unit will be against the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines And Digital Media Ethics) Code, adopted by the Government. 

Hate speech is offensive, but it is a sign of one’s weakness and frustration. But it is too much to conclude that every utterance would automatically lower human dignity or fragilise faith and weakens the social fabric of the nation. After all, all our political party leaders indulge in this commonly with varying degrees of difference. Hate hidden is more dangerous than hate expressed. It is anti-thesis in a synthesis. People whose sentiments are hurt in the group have to interact and react; they may invite Third Parties to intervene. Government should not be allowed to use force unless it results in concrete violence and damage. Already, the provisions of the Indian Penal Code make promoting enmity between different groups, making certain assertions prejudicial to national integration, statements leading to public mischief and insulting religious beliefs as cognizable offences. There is a law on sedition too. They are valid and desirable as limits. But their interpretation and taking ‘suo moto’ action cannot be left to regimes governed by political parties and their leaders, as they do not enjoy much credibility.  

After PCs on desktops, portable computers on our laps and smart phones on our palms, the Artificial Intelligence in our digital devices enters into our brains directly. But, a pause or a ban on AI research is unhelpful to solve the problems that arise from AI. The solution is precisely more research and more research. It is possible that we the Homo sapiens might turn into Homo digitals. The Spread of AI and its generative models like ChatGPT and their integration into Quantum computing are going to cause many social transformations that no government can authoritatively control. It is a matter of concern for the social actors only. There should be no obsession about privacy, we should rather propagate transparency, accountability and social responsibility as values. Indeed, online betting and gambling portals are aggressively advertising; but, they are not the original sins of SM, since they are age-old vices like prostitution, stealing and cheating. By making them punishable by government officers, we might not be able to improve much, except to add to more authoritarianism and corruption.

Pic courtesy : Microsoft Stock Library

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