Dangers of opinions manufactured on Twitter and Facebook

Social media is a double-edged sword.

 |  3-minute read |   27-01-2016
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The Friday sermon delivered by the Imam of the Grand Mosque in Makkah last Friday slammed irresponsible social media use in Saudi Arabia. This serious misuse of the digital space is not geographically limited to West Asia alone. News feeds buzzed with updates about the transfer of an Indian Police Service officer in Kerala.

In an age when revolutions were tweeted, a transfer engineered by the activists at the tip of their mouse is no big thing.

Democracy is not just a form of government in which the government are elected by the people; it is also about plurality of ideas. As noted political thinker, JS Mill advocated in On Liberty, truth does not emerge by itself; it is only through a conflict of opposing views that truth emerges.

Right to freedom of speech is recognised as a human right in Universal Declaration of Human Rights and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It is also recognised as a fundamental right in the Constitution of India.

Governments all over the world sensed the importance of directly communicating and thereby engaging with the people at large. In India, Shashi Tharoor was one of the first politicians to use microblogging website Twiter to connect with the masses. It is now used by almost every leader and the present Prime Minister Narendra Modi has used it as a diplomacy tool many times.

Internet as a free space is also used by activists to campaign for causes which the mainstream media is never interested to carry. The Hashtag activism started with the Occupy Wall Street protest, initially with an aim to coordinate twitter conversations, spread to other social media outfits as well. Internet enables activists to communicate inexpensively and also in a timely manner.

The real issue starts when opinions are manufactured in the digital space. The Makkah Imam observed that there was a tendency on social media to find fault with others and spread lies and half truths about other people and the country. The medium can be used to spread dissatisfaction.

Many people will like/follow/share and view only those pages or sites which are in harmony with their inflexible world view. When a feeble-minded person sees another with the same mindset, a bond develops between them. The situation turns worse when they decide to take on digitally the one who disagrees with their view.

The recent passage of the Juvenile Justice Amendment Act by the Indian Parliament stands out as a textbook example of being swayed away by the opinion of a mob. Social media believes that by the passage of the Act, all abuses against women in India are over.

The last Republic Day saw abuses on social media against the vice president of India, Hamid Ansari, for not saluting during the parade. The abuse went to the extent of calling him a traitor and even a jihadi sympathiser.

Later when the protocol was checked, the vice president, a former member of elite Indian Foreign Service, was right and all those who saluted, sans the president were wrong.

In a developing nation like India, millions are stopped from meaningfully engage online due to technological illiteracy or lack of access to technology. Then how can the opinion of a few be claimed as the opinion of the community at large?

Social media is a double-edged sword. A party, a recent phenomenon in Indian politics, showed us that opinions can be gathered from the common man directly before arriving at an important decision. Every decision by the high and mighty state should be objectively taken after weighing the pros and cons.

In a vibrant democracy, where people gave their mandate to the government to rule through free and fair elections, we should not bow to the pressure created by a few netizens in the name of the majority.

Writer

Nebil Nizar Nebil Nizar @nebilnizar

Nebil Nizar is a lawyer and an independent researcher based in New Delhi.

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